77. Splitting apart (IV)
Updated: Mar 1
I will go to my grave defending the position that Foucault’s work is implicitly sympathetic to the right and not the left. This is a heterodox position in an era when Foucault has become the whipping boy for the Western right, the man who, more than any other, is responsible for an attack on science, logic, facts, reason, and the Enlightenment, so leading to what many conservatives call “postmodern neo-Marxism”. There is some truth to these accusations, the left has taken up the rhetorical cudgels manufactured by Derrida, Adorno, and Marcuse; and these critiques—gifting the word “problematic” to the disciplinary vocabulary of the managerial state—do attack science, logic, Homer, and all the rest. This is not the place to elaborate, but when conservatives speak of postmodernism they are mostly speaking of Derrida. He is the real prince of darkness who instructed us to invert all values. Yet conservatives prefer to think of Foucault because he carries with him the whiff of Sodom, the thrill of LSD, and the suggestion of cockrings and chains in some San Francisco cellar. Gross!
But for a reactionary, Foucault is our friend. Who is Foucault’s great enemy? It is that bastard Bentham. I say we do not live in Foucault’s world: we live in Bentham’s world. We live in a world of experts, petty calculators, and rationalists. We definitely live in the world of the panopticon, a panopticon more complete than Bentham could imagine: a total digital panopticon. And who was the great enemy of the panopticon? Foucault.
As with Ian Curtis, doomed singer of Joy Division, the young Foucault revelled in the aesthetics of violence and gore, the world of Goya. This is not the sensibility of a left-wing personality. Foucault’s critique of punishment hits out at the Benthamite view that man can be reformed; literally, re-formed like some piece of chewing gum freshly spat onto an American sidewalk. Foucault, son of the whip, attacks this view and, I think, is sympathetic to the reactionary age when a man was hanged or flogged; he understands, like a good nihilist, that some men are born beasts and it is a greater crime to manipulate them with drugs and psychology and 24/7 surveillance than to kill them in a physically painful way. The artist and the scientist have criminal or anti-social personalities; they are the murderers and rapists of nature. Accordingly, the Benthamite state, the reasoned and enlightened state of liberal conservatives, will snuff out all real art and science. Alex, the young thug in A Clockwork Orange, only loves Ludwig van thanks to his own criminal nature. When the therapeutic state reforms him, his love of art dies too.
Foucault is, therefore, the beast philosopher; he is the great enemy of the Anglo-Protestant Enlightenment. He is the friend of real art and science; and he is the enemy of the insidious, subtle, and feminine soft torture of the managerial state. His Marxism was always superficial, adopted to fit in with the France of the time; he saw Beckett as better than Marxism. He chose aesthetics over politics—shades of Ian Curtis again. Foucault was an anarchist and anarchism is always ambiguous; the black flag of piracy—the flag of the greatest chaos—turns into the strongest desire for order, it is also the colour fascism and wisdom.
In his last years, Foucault was drawn to the Iranian Revolution. This was not Leninist realpolitik; he was genuinely enamoured with the spirit of counter-Enlightenment reaction. This horrifies Western conservatives, not least those who bend a knee to Zion. Finally, Foucault embraced a kind of radical honesty, parrhesia, inspired by Diogenes the Cynic, apostle of integrity and authenticity. Diogenes and Heraclitus are the grandfathers of Western reaction; the men of laughter and tears who know that the greatest liars are those who promise to reform man with reason. Foucault, scorning reasonable behaviour, died from his vices; he accepted the full punishment for his actions and evaded nothing. He was never reformed. Good.