Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Must We Cancel Foucault?

By Mark G.E. Kelly, TELOS

Michel Foucault’s name has never been far from scandal. Indeed, he has proven to be a perennially controversial figure. He rose to prominence in controversy, his ponderously scholarly 1966 book The Order of Things becoming a bestseller because marginal denunciations of humanism and Marxism therein brought it massive publicity in the form of shrill denunciations by elements of the French intellectual establishment. As Foucault himself wryly noted, he has been denounced by conservatives as an agent of the KGB and by communists as an agent of the CIA.[1] I would suggest that this phenomenon is related to the disturbingness of Foucault’s analyses: as long as Foucault’s conclusions remain difficult for people to cognize, there will always be an attempt to dismiss them for ad hominem reasons.

Since one cannot libel the dead, there has effectively been open slather for accusations against Foucault, no matter how baseless, for almost four decades. After his death, it was alleged that Foucault had deliberately spread the virus, HIV, that had killed him, an accusation that hardly made sense given the state of knowledge about the virus at the time he died. In the opening two decades of the third millennium, the period of my career as a Foucault scholar, the dominant scandal narrative around Foucault has shifted twice. During the first decade, the period of the War on Terror, the great scandal was Foucault’s support for the Islamic Revolution in Iran, which was always interpreted baselessly to mean Foucault had endorsed the theocratic regime that was its ultimate result. During this period any public seminar or event on Foucault would seem to be attended by an audience member who would rise to denounce Foucault’s supposed sympathy for Islamism. The great scandal for the following decade was Foucault’s alleged support of neoliberalism, provoked by the publication of Foucault’s lectures on this topic, The Birth of Biopolitics, in English in 2008. The coordinates of this controversy were quite different from the others in that a number of serious Foucault scholars agreed with the allegations from a sympathetic standpoint, though I nonetheless maintain they were ultimately without foundation.[2]


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