Revisiting the radical legacy of Michel Foucault via David Bowie.
In order to understand any major thinker and their legacy, it is important to consider their context—a truism that is very hard to put into practice, especially when the thinker in question belongs both to the recent past but is still very much a part of our present. In part, this explains the wealth of discussion swirling around the recent passing of a certain protean pop icon who left behind a singular era-defining legacy. It’s also for this reason that another standout cultural figure of the seventies—a certain French philosopher—has become so difficult to situate in our contemporary moment.
I speak, of course, of David Bowie and Michel Foucault whose political projects paralleled one another in intriguing ways. Whether in the intellectual works of the philosopher, or the records and performances of the artist, both men were concerned with questions of identity, whether sexual or personal; both focused on the persona or the construction of subjectivity rather than the more fixed humanist subject; both supported and even celebrated the marginal—whether incarnated as Bowie’s space alien or Foucault’s “abnormals” produced through disciplinary knowledges; and both made the experience of madness, transgression and intensity part of their art or thought. Both would also go on to develop an aesthetics of the self, turning life and ultimately death into a work of art or self-transformation. Blackstar, Bowie’s last album, was released days before he succumbed to cancer and Foucault’s final two volumes of History of Sexuality were published in the weeks preceding his death. With these swan songs, the pop star and the intellectual celebrity each died with a flourish and left us with work that spoke to and beyond their own deaths. Indeed, like this album, Foucault’s very last lectures, delivered when he surely suspected his condition was terminal, meditate on death and demise.
Whether in the intellectual works of the philosopher, or the records and performances of the artist, both men were concerned with questions of identity, whether sexual or personal; both focused on the persona or the construction of subjectivity rather than the more fixed humanist subject; and both supported and even celebrated the marginal.
Yet while both Bowie and Foucault are esteemed as cultural radicals (both famously drew upon and addressed the energy of the emergent gay movement well before it became mainstream) the politics of each is harder to define amidst the shifts in that decade. Bowie moved from the polymorphous sexuality of Ziggy Stardust to the more disturbing Thin White Duke, dabbling in the occult and even Nazi aesthetics. Foucault, meanwhile, shifted from collaborations with revolutionary Maoists in anti-institutional struggles to making common cause with human rights activists and those who called for the reform of the health and welfare systems.
In the early seventies, both announced a break with their forebears. Bowie would pay homage to the radical musical hero of the sixties by playing on the gap between his artistic persona (Bob Dylan) and his given name (Robert Zimmerman) and so opened the way for the performance of different identities in popular music. Foucault would outbid Marxist critique in his discovery of disciplinary society that made the body the prisoner of the "modern soul" or subject and disciplinary domination more fundamental and a condition of capitalism. In this sense, both Foucault and Bowie could be seen as signaling the withdrawal from the self-abnegating, anti-materialist culture and socialist and semi-Marxist radical politics that preceded them in the appeal to corporeality and a wilder sensuality. In transgressive performativity and the critique of medical and penal institutions, they could be read as critics of the European postwar welfare-state settlement and the dull conformity and bureaucracy it was thought to foster. They both mark in their own ways the emergence of a new cultural politics of identity and marginality that displaces an older politics of class and state.
At the same time, the late-seventies are notable for the rise of neoliberalism, the advent of which would displace social justice with market freedom as the headline political act. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, heir to this movement, notably praised Bowie after his death as a “master of reinvention”—thus lauding his identity fabrications, if not their political manifestation. (Some compared this to the silence of Margaret Thatcher at the time of John Lennon’s death, a much harder cultural legacy for neoliberals to incorporate).
At the same time, the late-seventies are notable for the rise of neoliberalism, the advent of which would displace social justice with market freedom as the headline political act.
More strikingly, however, Foucault's account of neoliberalism in his 1978 lectures has received endorsements from both its major intellectual schools—Gary Becker of the Chicago School and members of the German Ordoliberals in Freiburg—who ostensibly embrace both the cultural and political import of the philosopher’s work on their thought. This undoubtedly jars with the common interpretation of Foucault as a figure of the Left. But perhaps if we looked at his concrete political and policy statements, we might find some qualification of this view.
We could first mention his endorsement of the work of the virulently anticommunist and former Maoist André Glucksmann, who also recently died. We could ponder his trenchant opposition to the French Communist Party and his difficult relation to the first Socialist government under President Mitterand, which included the Communists in the Union of the Left. Moreover, after first rejecting humanist notions of rights as covering the spread of disciplinary and other micro-powers, he would later join forces with newly founded non-government organizations such as Amnesty International in mobilizing notions of human rights and importantly the right of intervention against governments. After his somewhat less than fully critical engagement with neoliberalism, he would launch a critique of social policy, including of the right to health, and demand a full-scale restructuring of the welfare state as fostering its own form of marginalization through dependency. In doing so, Foucault at least shared elements of the neoliberal diagnosis of “the welfare-state problem” if not actively endorsing their solution.
All this is to say that there is a gap between the grad school Saint Foucault incapable of political missteps and the actual, political Foucault, who is much more interesting and complex than the former. It also means he perhaps universalized from a specific context, which is quite different in many ways from ours. Political Islam (with the Iranian Revolution) and terrorism (à la Italy’s Red Brigades and Germany’s Baader-Meinhof) occupied the minds of Europeans, including Foucault, even then. We have also witnessed the re-emergence of widespread xenophobia as a public political force in the US and Europe, as well as problems of inequality and what is called “precarity,” not to mention concerns of class and racial privilege, and, in Europe, prolonged austerity and depression. While Foucault would undoubtedly have something interesting to say about all of these things, his work of some thirty and forty years ago cannot by itself address our issues and our problems.
Thus, while one can still derive great insight from Foucault and his political and conceptual tools, some of his basic orientations and enthusiasms need to be revisited today, given our current problems. His analytical and political anti-statism belong very much to his time and could be rethought in relation to the genealogy of what he himself called “state phobia.” Similarly his focus on local struggles and human rights chimes well with contemporary concerns of civil society but needs to be supplemented by a more muscular understanding of politics and power that makes the contestation over state power and policies central to addressing contemporary problems.
While one can still derive great insight from Foucault and his political and conceptual tools, some of his basic orientations and enthusiasms need to be revisited today.
The great incubator that was the seventies produced intellectuals and artists who would out-radicalize the earlier radicals. Just as Western economies, and the post-war institutions that supported them, entered into prolonged crisis, these key cultural figures would displace solemn concerns for justice and equality with the fluidity of identities and aesthetics of the self. Foucault, like David Bowie, is a product of that incubator. As they attacked the pious political asceticism of the sixties, both showed in their own ways that the old critique of capitalism could not contain the new politics and culture they explored and celebrated. But just as the endless repetition of Bowie’s songs, or their renditions by Lady Gaga at the Grammys, reduce their initial cultural earthquake to mere theatricality, so repeating Foucault’s then perspicacious intellectual nostrums does not recover their forceful and critical value, but in fact reveals hard limits to their radical content in the continuing paroxysms of contemporary financial capitalism. If we consider on one side the narcissism and fetishism of contemporary celebrity culture and rampant self-fashioning by social media, and on the other the aspirations of many younger people for a better, more equal society, both Bowie’s performances and Foucault’s political thought begin to look today decidedly less radical.
While his lectures have only recently become available, Foucault wrote and spoke about his famous ideas on power and politics mostly during the 1970s. Just like Bowie’s performances, his groundbreaking concepts—such as biopolitics and governmentality—were in part a product of time and place and that decade’s particular political debates and cultural changes, however paradigm shifting they are considered today. Hence my co-author and I set out to write a book about Foucault’s political thought and his legacy that regarded it neither as an inviolable set of truths propounded by a veritable saint nor as a discourse that colluded unfortunately with the emergent dominant ideology of neoliberalism in order to fool would-be radicals. Rather we wanted to transform it for our own needs and for our problems. The question of a confrontation with what Foucault himself recognized as our own pervasive state phobia seemed as good a place as any to begin that task.
Why does Foucault—an avowed anti-humanist—turn to “rights” in his later works?
For Foucault, religion is distinguished by how it inscribes language on bodies.