Contents Disappointed Utopia 1. Radical Philosophy After 1968

Michel Foucault and the birth of ambivalence

Faced with the frenetic atmosphere, the less militant philosophy professors sought to leave Vincennes for more conventional jobs.[10] So did Michel Foucault, a figure who is notable here for his precocious and vocal ambivalence about “the revolution.” Foucault became known in Parisian circles as early as 1961, when he published Madness and Civilization. He had gone to work in Tunisia in 1966, profiting from the economic opportunities available in the newly independent postcolonies, and he was not present in Paris during the May 1968 protests. In a retrospective interview, he heaped scorn on French radicalism, contrasting it with the political struggles he had seen in Tunisia.[11] Foucault commented:

When I came back to France in November-December 1968, I was rather surprised, astonished, even disappointed given what I had seen in Tunisia. The struggles, whatever may have been their violence, their passion, in any case didn’t involve the same price, the same sacrifices. There was no comparison between the Latin Quarter barricades and the real risk of getting fifteen years in prison like in Tunisia. People in France talked about hyper-marxism, the unleashing of theories, anathemas, splitting into tiny groups [groupuscularisation]. It was exactly the opposite of what had excited me in Tunisia. Maybe that explains the way I went through things from then on, out of sync with these boundless discussions, this hyper-Marxization, this unstoppable discursivity that was key to university life in 1969, especially life at Vincennes.
[Foucault 1994:80]

All the same, Foucault wanted to come back to France, and he agreed in the summer of 1968 to become the first head of the Vincennes Philosophy Department. Foucault had been recruited by the feminist literary scholar Hélène Cixous, who led Vincennes academic recruitments on behalf of Raymond Las Vergnas, then Dean of the Sorbonne.[12] Cixous was charismatic and well-connected, and had been precociously appointed at age 30 to a professorial post at Nanterre. She recollected that at the start of Vincennes “people willingly believed me and followed me”: the young, successful woman academic, an exception to the rule of male dominance in the French academy. And later in life, she remained proud of her effort to create “a site which was neither a non-place, nor a utopia, nor another world, nor an alibi, but truly a creation.[13]

An intense androcentrism, if not outright misogyny, was nevertheless there from the start, and a gendered division of intellectual labor set in at Vincennes. Cixous founded a Center for Feminine Studies, the first such center in France. But even though feminism was central to Cixous’ own intellectual project, the question of gender remained largely exterior to the Philosophy Department, where masculine domination would long prevail. As chair, Foucault did nothing to interrupt its general masculinity.[14] Instead, his hiring criteria were political, theoretical and reputational. The sociologist Charles Soulié explains that Foucault largely preferred Althusserians and Lacanians, such as Miller, Badiou and Rancière, but “to counterbalance the very marked Maoist influence” also brought in Trotskyists and more conventional Communists such as Bensaïd and Balibar (Soulié 1998:50).[15] The recruitments also had an elitist subtext. As Rancière put it, Foucault “asked Althusser and Derrida [both well-connected in French philosophy] to help him find young men who were supposed to be good [des jeunes supposés être bons], that’s all there was to it.”[16]

Foucault’s prestige helped create a philosophical milieu that was at once ideologically revolutionary and a space of elitist masculinism. It is a symptom of the project’s underlying contradictions that Foucault himself both fostered revolutionary philosophy and sarcastically disowned it. He was unable or unwilling to become a charismatic local leader; he complained after his departure in April 1970 that “I had had enough of being surrounded by the nuts [des démi-fous]” (Soulié 2012:199n720). The Trotskyist leader Henry Weber recalled that “Foucault soon understood that he couldn’t do much of anything as the head of this department, and the ideal course was to let everyone do what they wanted” (Audebert cited in Soulié 2012:209). After barely more than a year at Vincennes, Foucault was awarded a chair at the Collège de France, the pinnacle of the French academic system. François Châtelet, a Hegelian-Marxist historian of philosophy, replaced Foucault as head of the Department and remained in office into the 1980s.

Figure 14: In 1970, Michel Foucault expressed his views to the press that Vincennes had been “a trap” set for the Philosophy Department, since their experimentation with new pedagogies had been both encouraged and punished.
Figure 14: In 1970, Michel Foucault expressed his views to the press that Vincennes had been “a trap” set for the Philosophy Department, since their experimentation with new pedagogies had been both encouraged and punished.[17]

Foucault’s stance toward Vincennes was always shifty and ambivalent.[18] The story is widely told that at the opening of Vincennes in January 1969, Foucault entered enthusiastically into local protest politics. First he voted in favor of a campus occupation to protest a police action, and to everyone’s surprise, he stayed to participate in the occupation. Apparently Foucault looked “jubilant,” and demanded that someone show him how to use a fire extinguisher to fend off the riot police. Later he was tear-gassed and arrested with the rest of the protesters, which apparently “baptized” him as “a comrade” (Djian 2009:46–48). Yet Foucault also resisted comradeship: he was too old, too skeptical about revolutionary action in France.[19] Not long after he was “jubilant” about protest action, he was trying to escape the campus as fast as possible.

Soon after Foucault’s departure from Vincennes, his former colleagues also began talking about the decline of radicalism, and even blamed each other for it (e.g. Rancière 2012:76). There was a long discourse on how the radicality of 1968 was long in the past. And yet, I would argue, radical politics at Vincennes never really vanished. It persisted and took new forms among new generations. Philosophical radicalism was a collective project that exceeded any individual trajectory. And it remained marked by a hypercriticality, a hyper-reflexivity, verging on political melancholy. As James Williams notes of French cultural production at large, May 1968 left behind “a combination of melancholy and nostalgia for the brief flickerings of a utopian moment all-too-quickly smothered, compounded by anger and resentment that the revolution had been falsified by both the left and the right” (2011:282).

  1. Etienne Balibar “didn’t consider himself Vincennois” and quit after a year (Dormoy-Rajramanan 2004:69). The epistemologist Michel Serres “did not feel remotely at ease” and did the same (143).  ↩

  2. Tunisia became independent in 1956, and its subsequent Bourguiba regime was protested by the left (Hendrickson 2017).  ↩

  3. There is some controversy about whether Cixous was alone in contacting Foucault. “Il est difficile de savoir qui contacte M. Foucault pour Vincennes, puisque H. Cixous et P. Dommergues en revendiquent tous deux la responsabilité, D. Eribon évoquant plutôt C. Canguilhem” (Soulié 2012:94).  ↩

  4. Yet Cixous also emphasized that at Vincennes, “Later on, misogyny got back all its teeth and all its claws” (Cixous 2009:25).  ↩

  5. David Macey reports that in the early sixties, while teaching in Clerment-Ferrand, Foucault “cause[d] a scandal when he appointed [his partner Daniel] Defert to an assistantship in preference to a better-qualified woman candidate” (2004:64). See also Chapter 2.  ↩

  6. Foucault’s partner Daniel Defert was at that point a member of the Gauche Prolétarienne, a radical Maoist group.  ↩

  7. Rancière: “Foucault a prétendu, après, avoir fait un savant dosage entre tendances politiques, mais ça c’est une plaisanterie totale: il a demandé à Althusser et à Derrida de l’aider à trouver des jeunes supposés être bons, quoi, c’est tout.” (  ↩

  8. Le piège de Vincennes,” Le Nouvel Observateur 274, 9–15 February 1970, pp. 33–35. See also  ↩

  9. Charles Soulié (1998) has observed that Foucault’s ambivalence can be read as a reflection of his own ambiguous position as a “producer” (of new philosophical work) within a philosophical field dominated by “reproduction.“  ↩

  10. There is also an undated “intervention” from this period, said to be written by Foucault, in which he declares that he was not a comrade. “Messieurs,” the text says, “I can’t call you Comrades, being a scoundrel [crapule] myself. I ought to say that all professors are crap [des ordures]. They’re always late, and make a profession of cultivating lateness… The product we’re producing is scholarly lies; THAT’S WHAT THE STATE IS PAYING US FOR; and that’s what our scholarly student-monkeys are so eager to acquire” (Foucault in Djian 2009:71). The text has been reprinted in anthologies about the university, and its tone is certainly colorful. It seems to me out of keeping with Foucault’s normally guarded style of self-expression, and some my friend Ishmael (see Ch. 2) argued that it was a fake, that it said what Foucault “should have said” rather than being anything that he ever wrote.  ↩

« Previous Section | Next Section »