PRINT March 1993


James Miller’s Passion of Michel Foucault

OF ALL THE INTELLECTUAL PROJECTS that have come to strange life in the last thirty years, and there have been many, none is more profoundly enigmatic than Michel Foucault’s. Before his death from AIDS, in 1984, the French philosopher created a body of work fundamental to contemporary thought. His works summoned up a dream world of triumphant madness, glorious violence, and nameless moral transgressions too intense for reason to comprehend. A disciple of Nietzsche, Georges Bataille, and the Marquis de Sade, obsessed with extremity in every form—artistic, ethical, sexual, criminal—Foucault epitomized the dark, dangerous philosopher of our cryptic modernity.

Meticulously outlining the rise of what he called “the society of normalization,” Foucault launched a savage assault on the Enlightenment, on liberalism, on the humanist belief in progress. He rejected the most cherished ideas of modernity—the distinction between guilt and innocence, the “subject,” even “man” himself. For Foucault, the idea of “man” as an object of study, as a problem to be solved, was historically contingent, the result of repressive rational power. As he famously put it in The Order of Things, “Man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end . . . one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.”

After “man,” the savage god: this was Foucault’s vision. Torture rather than imprisonment, madness rather than sanity, crime rather than boredom: anything to avoid the insidious snares of the normal, anything but Nietzsche’s flealike “last man.” And always, standing in the shadows of his thought like an uncanny visitor, is the figure, the lure, of death.

Beneath the Gallic elegance, and despite leftist attempts to domesticate it, it is a frightening philosophy. Not coincidentally, in an age attracted to brutal elegance, it is also enormously influential. Within the academy, especially within its supposedly advanced wing, Foucault is to history what Jacques Derrida is to language: a limit-thinker, one of those figures who destroys all foundations and all conclusions, who does not so much innovate as burn, who leaves the field open or barren, suddenly unknown. For better or for worse, Foucault stands at the center of modern thought.

All of which gives great significance to James Miller’s The Passion of Michel Foucault. Miller’s book is a cultural event: a classic of intellectual biography, a tour de force that unites philosophical acuity, psychological delicacy, and what can only be called an artistic sense of the inner landscape of thought, of that elusive place where one’s life and philosophy mingle. Forcefully, yet in the end with salutary reticence, Miller unriddles this great, masked thinker.

Because it takes an unflinching look at Foucault’s personal life, including his avid participation in San Francisco’s S/M subculture, and because it regards that life as inextricable from his thought, Miller’s book is certain to be controversial. Some academic Foucauldians will protest that it is an exercise in psychologistic reduction—a bitterly ironic fate for Foucault, who spent his life disputing the idea that the individual had a deep psychological “truth.” Some will protest that by painting a picture, however accurate, of an obsessive, secretive, and in many ways tormented human being, Miller has only reinforced a host of familiar myths about “unhappy homosexuals.” But Miller’s book transcends these concerns. After reading The Passion of Michel Foucault, no one will be able to read Foucault in the same way again.

The book’s genesis, Miller explains in a postscript, was a rumor. An old friend “relayed a shocking piece of gossip: knowing that he was dying of AIDS, Michel Foucault in 1983 had gone to gay bathhouses in America, and deliberately tried to infect other people with the disease.” Miller, an academic and journalist who had a modest knowledge of Foucault’s work, was intrigued, but was unable to verify the rumor—although he did hear tales of Foucault’s involvement with the S/M scene. “At this point, I stopped wearing my journalist’s hat, and sat down with Foucault’s books,” writes Miller. The stories drew his attention to new elements: “Much of Foucault’s prose now seemed to me suffused with a strange kind of aura, both morbid and vaguely mystical.” As he was drawn deeper into the project, Miller began to feel that everything he came across was part of a “larger puzzle”—one that could only be solved by looking at both Foucault’s life and his work.

Miller has pieced together that strange puzzle by using an audacious literary form. The Passion of Michel Foucault is structured like a work of fiction. It opens with the disquieting speculation that Foucault may have somehow sought his own death in the bathhouses. Might this action, the narrator asks, have revealed the “lyrical core” of his life, its secret? This rhetorical question hangs over the entire book, building in intensity until the very last chapter, when Miller suddenly pulls out his trump cards, reveals his psychological epiphanies: three childhood memories, or stories, that the dying Foucault told to his friend Hervé Guibert as a kind of confession. The stories are nightmares, “terrible dioramas,” “eerily resonant images of cruelty, confinement, and death.” And, Miller implies, it was around these horrific images that all of Foucault’s work grew, like a pearl around an evil grain of sand.

This is Miller’s solution to the puzzle. Foucault, in the end, realized that he could not escape his own “truth,” the reality that had remained hidden in those dreadful memories. All of his works, as he himself hinted, were in fact fictions, monstrous masks he used to hide who he was from others and from himself. “More than one person, doubtless like me, writes in order to have no face,” Foucault said. But he does have a face. Like Leonardo’s writing, however, it is hidden. To see it, you have to hold his works up to a mirror—reverse them.

It is a devastating conclusion: the great antagonist of the deep self revealed to be obsessed with himself, condemned to endlessly repeat his tortured will to power in philosophical texts and bathhouses. But, perhaps out of a sense of interpretative delicacy, Miller declines to make his essentially psychological story explicit: he uses dramatic form to show it. The story he tells is its negative, the shadow of the psychological story, obscuring it and calling it into question. This is the story of how life remakes itself, of self-creative thought, of sublimation. From this perspective, neither Foucault’s obsession with death and extremity nor his fascination with S/M can simply be regarded as reactions to a founding horror, or pathology, or trauma—although they were that as well. In complicated ways, they were also made up of what Miller calls Foucault’s “great Nietzschean quest” to make himself who he was, to challenge himself, to live at the extreme limit.

Two truths, two visions: Miller refuses to choose. The line between decadence and genius, as Nietzsche knew well, is fine. Miller shows both the Foucault who ruled his passions and the one who was ruled; the reader can decide which face is real, or if one has to choose.

The Passion of Michel Foucault is a ground-breaking exploration of the life and thought of an exemplary modern thinker. It is also a cultural survival kit. Miller’s journalistic training, his freedom from cant, serve him well in traversing the strange landscape of post-Structuralist thought; his book is perhaps the most concise and intelligent “middle-distance” account of our cultural moment that has yet appeared. Every person who has ever heard the siren song of nihilism, ever dreamed of the sleep of reason, should read Miller’s book. Fittingly, and ironically, this work about the thought of a man may well prove to be the first announcement that the post-Structuralist age, the era of the “end of man,” is itself coming to an end, like a blank face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.

Gary Kamiya is a senior editor of Image, the Sunday magazine of the San Francisco Examiner. He writes regularly on culture.


James Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), 491 pages.