The genius who took sexuality out of homosexuality.
Gay French philosopher, Michel Foucault, one of the world’s most famous intellectual had dissented against the oppression of the normative order and redefined the homosexual identity. A lone wolf wandering in the dark mazes of modern life; perversion, madness, power and sexuality.When Michel Foucault had died of AIDS related complications, he was one of the most famous and influential thinkers of the end of the 20th century. He had celebrity status. A lone wolf wandering in the dark mazes of modern life: perversion, madness, power, enforcement and sexuality. His powerful research on the birth of modern medicine, prisons, psychiatry and other methods of qualifications had left longstanding influences on many philosophers, historians, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists and writers. Still, he is one of the most referenced authors and no field in social sciences, art and humanities is free of his influence.
Michel Foucault by Michèle Bancilhon
Alongside other French intellectuals like Sartre, Barthes and Derrida, Foucault contributed to our understanding of the post- modern world through new ideas and distinctions regarding language, and the way we phrase our thinking and communicate with others and the world--- but Foucault didn’t settle for that, and that was his uniqueness. He was drawn to the limits of what is considered normal and natural, deviant and perverse. His interest in these ideas and phenomena did not remain confined to academe; he saw great importance to have firsthand knowledge, “living the edge”, and his life were like a journey beyond the good, the bad and the ugly; to research them and know these situations beyond the everyday, accepted routine. That was how he repositioned and reimagined the world—and his place within it.
“don’t ask me who I am and don’t ask me to stay the same”
Sexuality, drugs, erotica—not necessarily usual subjects on a modern 20th century philosopher’s agenda. Foucault critiqued the philosophical establishment by distancing himself from questions about life itself (what are they? How should we live them as human being? What does ‘human being’ mean?) in favor of more analytical, linguistic and logical discussions. He was one of a kind in his time, by asking the million- dollar question: who is a human being in the 20th century? And investigated in depth elements of our everyday: how do we behave? How do we build our lives? What do we eat? The choices we make, the way we dominate other, fantasize, fuck, present ourselves in society. Foucault makes us all stop and think for a moment- what kind of creatures are we? Do we even want to be that way? Do we even have a choice? What is our relationship to the world, our knowledge, sex? What is the source of this knowledge? To whom does it belong? What is the force of this knowledge upon us? Meaning, how does it mold us, educate us, form our urges, wants and desires?
Summer, beaches and wet sunsets. We draw a man in the sand, and next to him planet earth, and next to that the sun. we surround ourselves and our figure instead of the man we painted in the sand. Now we imagine the orbits in the sand dwell around us; the earth circles us and the sun, in a larger circle, encircles earth and us. What moves this all are the laws of nature and physical forces which operate on heavenly bodies as well as on jellyfish, tennis rackets and summer humidity. This is how we thought our world works until everything had changed. In the 17th century Galileo Galilei discovered that the earth encircles the sun and not the opposite, many people were traumatized. Until that moment they had believed that people, us, are in the center of the cosmos—and from this center we stablished our entire system of ideas and beliefs. Michel Foucault sought to change the way we perceive the social- cultural world, just like Galilei changed the way we perceived the mathematical- physical world.
Like an archeologist, Foucault excavated in the sands of the history of knowledge and dealt with concepts like truth, liberty, humanism, power relationships, knowledge, subject, sexuality, and ask questions about the findings he had found—his assumptions—according to which we all live our lives and are the foundation for our distinctions between good and bad, sanity and madness, normality and subversion, justice and injustice, freedom and enforcement, order and chaos, beauty and ugliness. Since the 19th century good friends like Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud offered a revolution. They changed the way we perceive ourselves as rational creatures and showed that we are also motivated by irrational drives and unconscious behaviors—that we do not have control over. Foucault was educated on those sands, but also created his own depths of thinking. He tried to dispute and critique basic assumptions in society—what we perceive as normal and what deviates from that.
For Foucault, people are products of historical power relationships—social structures that mold us and our identity but also change themselves, and we, to an extent, are the ones who change them. Distinctly from the dry analytical research common at that time, Foucault was interested in the way these historical forces operate on us, mold us, tow the line, normalize us according to accepted norms at the time; the way we say yes or no, our physical gestures, our gender and sexual conditioning, the way we dress, talk, play, argue or sit in front of the computer. All that, as we had said, are products of forces that operate on us on subconscious strata, but also differ from time and place.
This is the concept of power for Foucault. The power that molds both the historical institutions and assumptions as well as human beings. Power resides in the relationship between things, and it changes from time to time and place to place, while taking different guises according to the prominent discourse of the specific moment in time. For that reason Foucault objected to the idea that we, human beings, have some kind of essence or truth that we need to aspire towards, an objective and scientific truth about human beings. He saw this perception as very dangerous, as any assumption of one truth would undermine another definition. Who decides what truth is? The person holding power. The prevalent norm that wants to continue its reign. And that power in modern times is sneaky, disguises itself as science, as an essence that brings us the truth about ourselves, thus is hidden from us. The character of the madman in our times is different to that of the 18th century, and the way society treats madmen has changed too. For Foucault, the truth about humankind is dynamic, always changing, just like the historical power relationships that define humankind. Human beings are completely determined by the society in which they live. They do not have a natural “nature” of themselves. A person who wants to be closer to their own truth needs to eb able to choose and mold their identity themselves and change throughout their lives.
Vicious cocktail of ostracizing and oppression.
Foucault was the son of a conservative doctor. He was born in 1926 in a province in France and lived most of his life in Europe. He spent his teenage years during the second world war in occupied France. The Nazi occupation combined with France’s paradoxical nature, which declared freedom and equality yet externalizes diversity that is beyond the norm, created a vicious cocktail of ostracizing and oppression. This was a period of repression, of leading double lives, when queer people had to live in secrecy and in shame, who were destined to suffer as victims of oppressive violence.
As a teenager Foucault fought for his sanity but tried to take his own life several times. Through this he started to obsessively research the factors that caused his depression, which brought him to take interest in psychology, psychoanalysis, psychopathology and psychiatry. In order to escape the limitations around him he went on exile in 1955. Most of the 50s and 60s Foucault spent living and working in Sweden, in Poland and in Tunisia. He visited Japan, Brazil and California, where he investigated male spas and caught HIV. Like many young French people of his time he had a short affair with communism, a flirtation which embedded in him a deep hatred for the USSR. This period contributed a lot to Foucault’s thinking of himself—of being gay and how to fight repression and everyday discipline.
Foucault returned to France with a troubling vision of the modern society founded on power and control apparatuses, his vision met the violent events of May 1968, perhaps the most important revolutionary event of the 20th century, where a few students, French workers, gay rights activists and anti- psychiatrists’ movements created an action that led to a general strike in France. These are movements that resisted power, and instead sought the possibility for the individual to be sovereign for his own life, without being subjected to others’ knowledge and power. These struggles that sought the freedom for sexual, gender and thought diversity came out against biases and regulations that penalize people for who they are rather than their behavior. Consequently, Foucault started to study the apparatuses of power, and gradually let go of codes of normative oppression. He started to feel freer to speak in public and started his struggle for minorities; everyone who had been classified as “others”, the outcast, those who were considered outside of “normal” those days. He argued that there is not one form for power, and that knowledge (everything that we are taught) is a new form of power which goes hand in hand with political power.
At the same time, insofar as he was a public activist for all those “others” that society seeks to exclude or normalize, he also surrounded his personal life with mysterious silence. Foucault’s personal discomfort forced him to seek solitude, to isolate himself and question himself. He asked to investigate our thinking towards its perception and its birth, and to write its history, the history of knowledge that confirms its authority on this moment. His object was to show that what seems to us apparent in the world around us as well as our knowledge around it can always be
“I lived for 18 years in a condition of passion for someone”
Foucault shared his personal life in what he referred to as ‘the passion’ with Daniel Defert, his partner from 1963. Defert was a philosophy student, ten years younger than Foucault. Defert’s political activism influenced Foucault’s development greatly. When discussing their relationship Foucault said in 1981: “I lived for 18 years in a condition of passion for someone. At some moments this passion took the form of love. But truly, this was a condition of passion between the both of us”. Foucault and Defert had an intimate relationship for 25 years.
The philosopher believed that the real me is in his works, and apart from his public image- a shaved head, leather clothes, boyish figure—his life remained in the shadows. Foucault wrote a lot about sexuality (history of sexuality—4 volumes), but I will refer here only to homosexuality and not sexuality. “How can men be together? Live together, share their time, their meals, their rooms, their pastime, their sorrow, their knowledge, their secrets? What does it mean to be ‘naked’ among men?” Foucault anchors his position in a critique of homosexuality as a permanent identity. He claims that there is no real homosexual identity, style or life style, and correspondently people who embrace homosexuality do not understand the inner nature that had been concealed by heterosexual hegemony. Instead, they must challenge the mission of creating their own subjectivity—a task that entails creating relationships with others.
Foucault defines homosexuality as a space for creating new relationships, he wants to place us on the path to creative and collective construction of subjectivity. This is what he means by “friendship”, shared work with others to create subjectivity and new relationships rather than falling back on societal norms. This is a concept of friendship that chooses experience over traditional, institutional or gendered relationships. This also grants heterogeneity over homogeneity, by foreseeing the creation of many different relationships according to peoples’ preferences. “We must understand that with our wishes, through our wishes, transcending new forms of relationships, new forms of love, new forms of creation. Sexual relationship are not a thing of death; they are a possibility for creative life”.
He asks to abstain from the qualification between friendship and romantic love but is keen to distinguish friendship from sexual relationship. He must do so in order to notice the sexual and emotional elements of homosexuality. Foucault claims that homosexuality is not only a form of passion, but the question “how can one found a relationship on sex?” is fundamental. He distinguishes between sex and lust on the one hand, and emotional ties on the other. There are two reasons for the significance of this distinction: first, Foucault connects sexual passion to the concept of a permanent identity. In the case of homosexuality, he is wary of the tendency to create a consistent identity around the will for other men. This would be a problem since the perception of homosexuality as a permanent fixture collides with the custom of experimental friendship, which is the “preferred” element of the homosexual culture. Second, for Foucault, affection can be subversive, but sex cannot. We can think that Foucault wants to extract sexuality out of homosexuality, as he sees homosexuality as a societal phenomenon that is directed in fact to create romantic relationships, and by and by involve sexual relationships between men.
“Tell me what your wish is, and I will tell you who you are, whether you are normal or not, and then I can transcend or strike out your will”.
Another interesting element in Foucault’s perception of “friendship” is that it involves two clear activist project. The first involves local resistance to social normalization. This resistance occurs when people disengage normative systems and normalization of power and domination relationship, usually in our relationship. Instead, creation of liminal spaces for creation of new relationships. In the current world there are many such spaces, and they do not necessarily relate to homosexuality. For Foucault the clear example of local resistance through friendship is the S and M gay culture. He claims that the relationships founded through S and M innovate traditional sexual relationship and can include new forms of pleasure.
The concept of ‘pleasure’, on the other hand, is virgin territory, almost without meaning. There is no pathology of pleasure, there is no abnormal pleasure. This is an event ‘outside of the subject’ or on the boundary of the subject, inside something that is neither body nor soul, neither in nor out, a concept that cannot be related. The culture of pleasure creates ways or reference, being, exchanges between subjects that are actually new and not alike existing forms of culture. If this can indeed be, then the culture of pleasure would be not only a choice between homosexual but also available for heterosexual.
Laboratories for sexual experimentation
One of the positive developments towards creation of gay culture, according to Foucault, was the opening of barres and spas that reduced the shame involved in the very crude distinction between male and female lives (the “monosexual” relation). The clubs and bars that Foucault referred to were the gay ghettos of American cities: Christopher street in NYC and Castro st. area in San Francisco. They were the product of the gay liberation movement in the 1970s, and represented an industry of millions of dollars that created, according to Foucault, “a completely new art of sexual practice, which attempts to investigate all internal possibilities in sexual conduct. You discover that what can be called laboratories for sexual experimentations are developed in places like San Francisco and NYC”. They were by-products of the availability of sex, “because the sexual act became so easy and approachable for homosexuals that it endangers itself in becoming dull quickly, so that any effort to rejuvenate and create variations that will intensify the pleasure arising from the act must be made”.
Foucault agreed with his interviewer that the golden shower scene etc. were “much more revealed these days”. In another interview, Foucault expressed sadness that these places for erotic experimentation do not yet exist for heterosexuals, “would it not be great that they could, at any time of day or night, to go into a well equipped place with all convenience and all possibility that can be imagined…their hypothetical opening is the advantages that can be transferred from the homosexual to the heterosexual community”.
Foucault had the dubious pleasure of experiencing the a near-death experience. One evening at the end of July 1987, Foucault was hit by a car. He was thrown in the air and landed on the car, when pieces of glass in his face and head. He was taken immediately to the nearby hospital where he remained for nearly a week. After he recovered, he remembered: “I once was hit by a car in the street. I was walking, and for two seconds I had the impression that I am dying, and this is truly a very intense pleasure. The weather was glorious, the time was seven oclock during summertime. The sun was setting. The sky was very wonderful and so forth. This was, this still is, one of my best memories”.
Foucault’s immense legacy remains with us from the most abstract ideas to the most trivial, in a way that is unique to him. When he died, Foucault was perhaps the most famous intellectual in the world.
Translation from Hebrew: Dana Milles