Friday, 16 May 2014

Giants of Academia & the Arts

… but, then again, nobody is perfect

Michel Foucault (15 October 1926 – 25 June 1984)

We all have at least heard the name Michel Foucault but how much do we actually know about the man that it belonged to? For some, it will be much more than for others. Indeed, rather like greatness itself, some are born to Foucault, some achieve Foucault and others have Foucault thrust upon them. In both cases, we freely admit to belonging to the latter grouping.

Michel Foucault was born on 15 October 1926, making him a Friday’s child, which, according to the nineteenth century poem, predestined him to a life of “loving and giving,” though those with a more thorough knowledge of the great man might argue that Sunday would have been more appropriate in his case.

Foucault came into this world via the small town of Poitiers in central France and was actually christened Paul-Michel Foucault, after his doctor father, Paul Foucault, whose own father, another Paul Foucault, was also a doctor, though it was his mother, Anne Malapert (daughter of yet another doctor, needless to say) who insisted on tagging on the double-barrelled Michel part. Little is known of his childhood, which remained the single part of history (or anything, for that matter) that he was ever reticent to discourse about, though he did describe himself as a “juvenile delinquent” and claimed that his father was a bully much given to stern punishments. He and his father were never on the closest of terms, a situation that was not helped when he decided to slope off into philosophy instead of becoming the doctor that family tradition demanded, and this conflict may be part of the reason for his dropping of the Paul from his name. Luckily, younger brother Denys stepped into the breach and thus the doctoring went on. The self-proclaimed image of the youthful Foucault as an adolescent tearaway is somewhat tarnished, however, by the fact that he found time to serve as an altar boy at mass in the Catholic church of Saint-Porchair.

Foucault later went on to enter the École Normale Supérieure, which, from the sound of it, was anything but normal (though most certainly Supérieure), being rather like the wilderness seclusion of a monastery for boy geniuses. (That, by the bye, is the correct plural in instances of high intellect, genii being the one for spirits with influence toward good or evil, as in “Rasputin, the evil genius of Russian politics.” Or simply more than one genie.) 
Poor Michel was not popular. In fact, most of his classmates hated him. And those that didn’t hate him thought he was mad. Whilst the school welcomed and even encouraged eccentricity, Foucault always seemed to take it that bit too far, setting him apart as the oddball, even against such stiff competition. Noted for his love of violence and the macabre, his room was decorated with all manner of gruesome imagery of war and torture, agony and torment, heavily featuring the etchings of the Napoleonic War by Goya. On one notable occasion, he actually went armed with a dagger in hot pursuit of a fellow pupil. In addition to all this, he also had an in-depth knowledge of the Marquis de Sade and was prone to self-harm, becoming obsessed with self-mutilation and suicide, attempting the latter several times, though in this he was largely unsuccessful. For all his melding and enmeshing of history with philosophy, in 1966 Foucault went to Tunisia to take up a post at the University of Tunis, as well as to be near to his lover, from where he did not return until 1968, thereby completely missing the student uprisings of May that year, which lead to eleven million French joining a general strike and the French economy grinding to a halt, events that would have an impact on French society for decades to come. And he missed it. Bet he gave himself a good kicking for that. Actually though, with his penchant for self-harm and his interest in the Marquis de Sade, perhaps he didn’t give himself a good kicking for that. 

“Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same.” So said Foucault. And he didn’t remain the same. As the years passed, he mellowed and became increasingly popular, and was even described as “a radiant man, relaxed and cheerful,” some going so far as to call him a “dandy.” This is the image we normally associate him with: the toothy grinning character portrayed in black and white photographs. Though this may simply be the old Foucault maliciously relishing the idea that whatever comes pouring forth from his pen will undoubtedly be inflicted upon every future generation of students for many years to come.
The German historian (with an axe to grind) Hans-Ulrich Wehler harshly criticized Foucault in 1998, having waited until his rival was safely fourteen years in the grave first, accusing him of francocentrism on the grounds that “he did not take into consideration major German-speaking theorists of social sciences.” Leading to the assumption that Wehler must be the German word for either pot or kettle. In all, Wehler concludes that Foucault is "because of the endless series of flaws in his so-called empirical studies […] an intellectually dishonest, empirically absolutely unreliable, crypto-normativist seducer of Postmodernism". Easy for him to say …

Foucault wrote a large number of books, including The Order of Things, Discipline and Punish and the History of Sexuality. In 2007, Foucault was listed as the most cited scholar in the humanities by the ISI Web of Science. He was certainly the baldest. Mostly, though, Foucault became known for wearing turtleneck jumpers. And he was pen pals with René Magritte: how surreal is that?

[Michel Foucault’s works remain as popular and relevant as ever, whilst within Birkbeck Library itself, he continues to be amongst our most heavily borrowed authors year upon year. To see the vast range of material we have available by this week’s Giant, simply type Foucault into VuFind and search by author. Here’s one we prepared earlier …] 

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