The 1981 TIME Magazine Profile That Introduced Michel Foucault to America

These days, would we expect to find a pro­file of a homo­sex­u­al rad­i­cal-left philoso­pher spe­cial­iz­ing in dis­ci­pline and pun­ish­ment in the pages of Time mag­a­zine? Maybe, maybe not—and few of us would find out if there were one, giv­en that the mag­a­zine seems to have long since ced­ed its cen­tral­i­ty in Amer­i­can cul­ture, falling back on a sub­scriber base of retirees and den­tist offices. But in Novem­ber 1981, when Time was def­i­nite­ly still TIME, it did indeed run such a pro­file, and now you can read it in full in PDF form.

“Watch­ing French Marx­ists grap­ple with the rad­i­cal the­o­ries of Michel Fou­cault, says the philoso­pher’s trans­la­tor Alan Sheri­dan, is like watch­ing ‘a police­man attempt­ing to arrest a par­tic­u­lar­ly out­ra­geous drag queen.’ ” So reports jour­nal­ist and cul­tur­al his­to­ri­an Otto Friedrich in the piece’s open­ing. “The solemn spe­cial­ists who patrol the Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ty have their own dif­fi­cul­ties with Fou­cault. Leo Bersani of the French depart­ment at Berke­ley eulo­gizes him as ‘our most bril­liant philoso­pher of pow­er,’ but Yale His­to­ri­an Peter Gay dis­miss­es him: ‘He does­n’t do any research, he just goes on instinct.’ ”

Oth­er sources offer­ing acco­lade, con­dem­na­tion, and a mix­ture of both for the author of The Archae­ol­o­gy of Knowl­edge and The His­to­ry of Sex­u­al­i­ty, include (broad­ly speak­ing) col­leagues like lit­er­ary the­o­rist Edward Said, who com­plains that Fou­cault “has nev­er been able to explain his­tor­i­cal change,” and philoso­pher Richard Rorty, who sug­gests Fou­cault “join the bour­geois lib­er­als he despis­es.” When Fou­cault him­self speaks, he exhibits the expect­ed ten­den­cy toward intel­lec­tu­al defi­ance and rug-pulling rede­f­i­n­i­tion of terms, though the arti­cle also gath­ers sev­er­al moments of sur­pris­ing frank­ness about his own life. (“I can­not expe­ri­ence plea­sure,” he claims.)

Of course, not every Amer­i­can of the day got to know Fou­cault through Time. Rather than in that most main­stream of all mag­a­zines, they may have dis­cov­ered him through one of the least: Chez Fou­cault, the low bud­get fanzine we fea­tured last week. And the con­nec­tion goes deep­er: “In 1981, when Time mag­a­zine pub­lished an arti­cle on Fou­cault,” writes James Miller in his biog­ra­phy The Pas­sion of Michel Fou­cault, “the pho­to­graph accom­pa­ny­ing the piece [above] showed Fou­cault sit­ting with Sime­on Wade”—publisher of Chez Fou­caultWade put the ‘zine togeth­er with oth­er Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia stu­dents, a group whom the philoso­pher’s ideas would con­tin­ue to influ­ence until his death, as evi­denced by his final UC Berke­ley lec­tures in 1983, and beyond—as col­le­gians cur­rent­ly work­ing under the sys­tem of con­trol known as the cul­tur­al the­o­ry depart­ment can attest.

via Crit­i­cal Theory/Pro­gres­sive Geo­gra­phies

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Michel Fou­cault Deliv­er His Lec­ture on “Truth and Sub­jec­tiv­i­ty” at UC Berke­ley, In Eng­lish (1980)

Hear Michel Foucault’s Lec­ture “The Cul­ture of the Self,” Pre­sent­ed in Eng­lish at UC Berke­ley (1983)

Michel Fou­cault – Beyond Good and Evil: 1993 Doc­u­men­tary Explores the Theorist’s Con­tro­ver­sial Life and Phi­los­o­phy

Watch a “Lost Inter­view” With Michel Fou­cault: Miss­ing for 30 Years But Now Recov­ered

Read Chez Fou­cault, the 1978 Fanzine That Intro­duced Stu­dents to the Rad­i­cal French Philoso­pher

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture as well as the video series The City in Cin­e­ma and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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