When Michel Foucault Tripped on Acid in Death Valley and Called It “The Greatest Experience of My Life” (1975)

Image by Nemo­main, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

French the­o­rist Michel Fou­cault rose to inter­na­tion­al promi­nence with his crit­i­cal histories—or “archaeologies”—of sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge and tech­no­crat­ic pow­er. His first book, Mad­ness and Civ­i­liza­tion, described the Enlight­en­ment-era cre­ation of insan­i­ty as a cat­e­go­ry set apart from rea­son, which enabled those labeled mad to be sub­ject­ed to painful, inva­sive treat­ments and lose their free­dom and agency dur­ing a peri­od he called “the Great Con­fine­ment.”

A fol­low-up, The Birth of the Clin­ic, appeared in 1963, intro­duc­ing the notion of the “med­ical gaze,” a cold, prob­ing ide­o­log­i­cal instru­ment that dehu­man­izes patients and allows peo­ple to be made into objects of exper­i­men­ta­tion. Fou­cault tend­ed to view the world through a par­tic­u­lar­ly grim, claus­tro­pho­bic, even para­noid lens, though one arguably war­rant­ed by the well-doc­u­ment­ed his­to­ries he unearthed and the con­tem­po­rary tech­no­crat­ic police states they gave rise to.

But Fou­cault also insist­ed that in all rela­tions of pow­er, “there is nec­es­sar­i­ly the pos­si­bil­i­ty of resis­tance.” His own forms of resis­tance tend­ed toward polit­i­cal activism, adven­tur­ous sex­u­al exploits, Zen med­i­ta­tion, and drugs. He grew pot on his bal­cony in Paris, did cocaine, smoked opi­um, and “deanat­o­mized the local­iza­tion of plea­sure,” as he put it, with LSD. The exper­i­men­ta­tion con­sti­tut­ed what he called a “lim­it expe­ri­ence” that trans­gressed the bound­aries of a social­ly-imposed iden­ti­ty.

But in a strange irony, the first time Fou­cault dropped acid, he him­self became the sub­ject of an exper­i­ment con­duct­ed on him by one of his fol­low­ers, Sime­on Wade, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry at Clare­mont Grad­u­ate School. In 1975 Fou­cault gave a sem­i­nar at UC Berke­ley, where he would lat­er fin­ish his career in the years before his death in 1984. While in Cal­i­for­nia, he accept­ed an invi­ta­tion from Wade and his part­ner Michael Stone­man to take a road trip to Death Val­ley. “I was per­form­ing an exper­i­ment,” Wade remem­bered in a recent inter­view on Boom Cal­i­for­nia. “I want­ed to see [how] one of the great­est minds in his­to­ry would be affect­ed by an expe­ri­ence he had nev­er had before.”

We went to Zabriskie Point to see Venus appear. Michael placed speak­ers all around us, as no one else was there, and we lis­tened to Elis­a­beth Schwarzkopf sing Richard Strauss’s, Four Last Songs. I saw tears in Foucault’s eyes. We went into one of the hol­lows and laid on our backs, like James Turrell’s vol­cano, and watched Venus come forth and the stars come out lat­er. We stayed at Zabriskie Point for about ten hours.

The desert acid trip, Wade says, changed Fou­cault per­ma­nent­ly, for the bet­ter. “Every­thing after this expe­ri­ence in 1975,” he says, “is the new Fou­cault, neo-Fou­cault…. Fou­cault from 1975 to 1984 was a new being.” The evi­dence seems clear enough. Fou­cault wrote Wade and Stone­man a few months lat­er to tell them “it was the great­est expe­ri­ence of his life, and that it pro­found­ly changed his life and his work…. He wrote us that he had thrown vol­umes two and three of his His­to­ry of Sex­u­al­i­ty into the fire and that he had to start over again.”

Fou­cault had suc­cumbed to despair pri­or to his Death Val­ley trip, Wade says, con­tem­plat­ing in his 1966 The Order of Things “the death of human­i­ty…. To the point of say­ing that the face of man has been effaced.” After­ward, he was “imme­di­ate­ly” seized by a new ener­gy and focus. The titles of those last two, rewrit­ten, books “are emblem­at­ic of the impact this expe­ri­ence had on him: The Uses of Plea­sure and The Care of the Self, with no men­tion of fini­tude.” Fou­cault biog­ra­ph­er James Miller tells us in the doc­u­men­tary above (at 27:30) —Michel Fou­cault Beyond Good and Evil— that every­one he spoke to about Fou­cault had heard about Death Val­ley, since Fou­cault told any­one who would lis­ten that it was “the most trans­for­ma­tive expe­ri­ence in his life.”

There were some peo­ple, notes inter­view­er Heather Dun­das, who believed that Wade’s exper­i­ment was uneth­i­cal, that he had been “reck­less with Foucault’s wel­fare.” To this chal­lenge Wade replies, “Fou­cault was well aware of what was involved, and we were with him the entire time.” Asked whether he thought of the reper­cus­sions to his own career, how­ev­er, he replies, “in ret­ro­spect, I should have.” Two years lat­er, he left Clare­mont and could not find anoth­er full-time aca­d­e­m­ic posi­tion. After obtain­ing a nurs­ing license, he made a career as a nurse at the Los Ange­les Coun­ty Psy­chi­atric Hos­pi­tal and Ven­tu­ra Coun­ty Hos­pi­tal, exact­ly the sort of insti­tu­tions Fou­cault had found so threat­en­ing in his ear­li­er work.

Wade also authored a 121-page account of the Death Val­ley trip, and in 1978 pub­lished Chez Fou­cault, a mimeo­graphed fanzine intro­duc­tion to the philoso­pher’s work, includ­ing an unpub­lished inter­view with Fou­cault. For his part, Fou­cault threw him­self vig­or­ous­ly into the final phase of his career, in which he devel­oped his con­cept of biopow­er, an eth­i­cal the­o­ry of self-care and a crit­i­cal take on clas­si­cal philo­soph­i­cal and reli­gious themes about the nature of truth and sub­jec­tiv­i­ty. He spent the last 9 years of his life pur­su­ing the new path­ways of thought that opened to him dur­ing those extra­or­di­nary ten hours under the hot sun and cool stars of the Death Val­ley desert.

You can read the com­plete inter­view with Wade at BoomCalifornia.com.

Relat­ed Con­tent:   

Michel Fou­cault: Free Lec­tures on Truth, Dis­course & The Self (UC Berke­ley, 1980–1983)

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

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

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

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

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (7) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (7)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Culkin Nimportky says:

    Do you guys ever have any ori­gianl ideas about phi­los­o­phy arti­cles, or do you always steal some­one else’s ideas and just repack­age them, as here ? The fou­cault on acid arti­cle from boom has been float­ing around for two weeks. You­ve added noth­ing to it here, except the false illu­sion that OC had the idea. We have to wait until the last line for an acknowl­edge­ment that every­thing we hhave just read had been cribbed from a bet­ter orig­i­nal source. Is thst whst “open” means ?

  • Josh Jones says:

    Some­times we pub­lish pieces with added orig­i­nal takes on a text and some­times we “repack­age” oth­er texts, like this inter­view, with added con­text and addi­tion­al material–such as the doc­u­men­tary and links to Fou­cault’s talks, essays, etc. Both of these types of posts are of inter­est to our read­ers. Your com­ment, on the oth­er hand, adds noth­ing.

  • Phil T. says:

    I’d like to add some­thing, as a read­er.

    Despite the claim that this arti­cle has been ‘float­ing around for two weeks’, I had not seen it before. And though I was unfa­mil­iar with this spe­cif­ic inter­view, I have encoun­tered the sto­ry of Fou­cault’s acid trip many times, and yet I still enjoyed this addi­tion­al take on it. Just because you have seen some­thing on the inter­net does­n’t mean every­one else has. Even if you have seen some­thing before, there is always the pos­si­bil­i­ty of learn­ing some­thing new about that which is famil­iar. Before cry­ing ‘repost!’, please con­sid­er that some­one else may be find­ing the val­ue that you can’t or won’t.

    I also vig­or­ous­ly dis­agree that this post was ‘steal­ing some­one else’s ideas’, since the source is made pret­ty clear; cita­tion is not theft. The author also does a good job of pro­vid­ing addi­tion­al con­text to frame their cita­tion in a way which enhances the read­er’s expe­ri­ence, and I, for one, appre­ci­ate this.

    In gen­er­al, I find this blog’s con­tent fas­ci­nat­ing and very well-curat­ed. I often find myself extreme­ly puz­zled by non­con­struc­tive and angry com­ments like the one above that all too often seem to reflect a very min­i­mal engage­ment with the actu­al con­tent of the blog. My wish is that more com­men­ta­tors would spend more time con­sid­er­ing the big­ger pic­ture, includ­ing the per­spec­tive of oth­ers, before com­mit­ting their com­ment to inter­net pos­ter­i­ty.

  • Gary R. De Witt says:

    I per­son­al­ly blame Open Cul­ture for help­ing me become a bet­ter per­son. In fact I save every Open Cul­ture in a fold­er even though I could always use their archives. This way I feel they belong to me. OC always acknowl­edges their sources for the con­tent, so what’s the prob­lem? Many times this blog has intro­duced me to new people,places,films, music, books,websites etc..And gave me a new per­spec­tive or bet­ter under­stand­ing of many things I already knew some­thing about. Keep doing what you’re doing Open Cul­ture. Nobody does it bet­ter. Gary

  • Ruth Rusch says:


  • bill molloy says:

    In a SM bar in Frisco — ‘Here man is reborn free, but every­where he is in chains.’ Ha ha!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.