In Defense of Foucault
A reader writes:
You write about Foucault as if he's not worth reading because the political consequences of some of his ideas have been pernicious. It's not that such consequences should be ignored - I think the academy would be a more serious place if Foucault had less influence - but I'm not sure what I lost, for example, by reading Discipline and Punish and History of Sexuality Vol. 1 with an open mind, particularly after having read Nietzsche a few weeks before, and Hegel before that, and then reading Derrida a few weeks later, and then Edward Said's Orientalism, etc., etc., etc. (it was a class on philosophy for historians). Would I have been better off not reading Foucault? Was I deluding myself that he was offering an interesting perspective, and that my understanding of, say, Nietzsche was deepened by reading him?
You write about it as if it's all just part of the academic culture wars, and if we cede too much ground to those insidious Frenchmen than we'll have betrayed our side and its solid, Anglo-American values. It seems anti-intellectual to me. I would expect better of you. Have you read much Foucault? Didn't you find that he said anything interesting? Wasn't his writing powerful enough that reading it was at least profitable for you in the sense of having to contend with a deep but flawer thinker?
The writer makes a good point. I have, of course, read Foucault. The second chapter of "Virtually Normal" is largely devoted to his influence on our understanding of homosexuality and its attendant politics. I certainly think he's worth reading. What concerns me is that he and his increasingly incomprehensible disciples became almost the only source for the profilerating "queer studies" departments and programs for American students in the 1990s. So many young gay and straight minds were subjected to his prose as the first way to think about homosexuality. Plato, Whitman, Proust, Wilde, Disraeli, Lincoln, Forster, Auden: you would never have read them in any decent course in a university on gay studies. Compared to these giants, Foucault is a midget. He was also an early enthusiast for the Iranian Islamist regime. When you see pictures of gay teenagers hanging in Iran, it's worth remembering that Foucault loved this regime. There is no greater symbol of what his nihilist leftism leads to.