foucault biogs

Here's a version of my review of David Macey's biog, _The Lives of Michel
Foucault_, pub in _SubStance_ #75. I constrast it with both Miller and
Eribon. --E. Heroux
Erick Heroux
Dept. of English
University of Oregon

Review of:
Macey, David. _The Lives of Michel Foucault_.
New York: Pantheon, 1994. $29.50. 624 pp.

"Each of my works is a part of
my own biography."

[1] Those interested in Foucault have finally found his
biographer in David Macey. The third biography to appear since his death
in 1984, _The Lives of Michel Foucault_ gives us more about his life and
work than either of the two prior biographies by Didier Eribon and James
Miller. Eribon's _Michel Foucault_ has the virtue of being the first, of
pathfinding, but is limited in its discussion of Foucault's works,
prefering to document the public features of his career. Miller's _The
Passion of Michel Foucault_ has the virtue of being provocative about
Foucault's inner existence, but is limited by Miller's single-minded
thesis and specious methodology. Superceding these limitations, Macey's
is the most informed and responsible biography of Foucault we are likely
to encounter or require.
[2] Published in 1993 in the UK, and now available in the US, Macey's
book, at over 600 pages, is both a readable narrative of a life and a
substantial study of one of our era's most daring and remarkable
intellectuals. Macey has read everything and talked with all of the key
people involved in Foucault's life, both personally and professionally.
Merely scanning a partial list of the figures Macey has contacted reveals
a lot about both Foucault's range of influence and the kinds of circles
he moved in: Etienne Balibar, Pierre Bourdieu, Zygmunt Bauman, Helene
Cixous, Felix Guattari, Pierre Klossowski, Jean Laplanche, Jean-Francois
Lyotard, Pierre Macherey, Claude Mauriac, Toni Negri...and so forth. To
tell Foucault's life is also to explore recent intellectual history, and
Macey has done so. After having written a previous study _Lacan in
Contexts_, Macey is on familiar turf.
[3] His accomplishment here might best be described by contasting it
with the other Foucault biographies. At the risk of simplifying by being
overly schematic, it is possible to place Macey's biography squarely
between the two poles of the prior attempts. Where Eribon's dwelt on the
public Foucault, the record of accomplishments, and conversely, where
Miller dwelt on a private Foucault of subliminal secrets, Macey avoids
either extreme. His is a portrait of a man with little-known desires
which do not always reflect the public work, and yet a man for whom the
work was essential. And where Eribon was too photographic--a sequence
of snapshots-- Macey supplies the contextual details to explicate
Foucault. Where Miller was too psychological (speaking loosely), Macey
leaves interpretation to the reader--after providing more to work with.
Where Eribon was too reticent and Miller was too obsessed, Macey looks on
with a calm, clearsighted regard. Eribon's appears to have been composed
for a general French audience. Macey, instead, addresses those of us
who are relatively unfamiliar with the peculiarities of French academia.
He does an excellent job of explaining those foreign rituals and cultural
resonances which are often either lost in translation or overlooked--both
in Foucault's texts and in the contextual implications of his decisions
and actions. In this way for example, we learn about the significance
of his rigorous education during WWII, and we discover how he became a
French cultural attache, a position he attained through a chance
encounter with the mythologist, Dumezil, and which he competed for,
unknowingly, with Greimas, the semiologist. We also become aware of how
he became an academic, almost against his choice, and how he came to be
published, again as though by chance encounter, by Gallimard, the most
prestigous publisher in France. Macey's biography also offers more
about his relationship to his tutor, Althusser, and Foucault's brief
involvement in the French Communist Party; and about his later rise
through the labyrinth of academia; about his activism in Tunis, around
prison reform, the treatment of immigrants, the Association Defense
Libre, the experiment in journalism during the Iranian revolution; about
his changing relationship with Deleuze and many others; about his
interest in the riots of May '68; about the _nouveaux philosophes_, etc.
[4] On the other hand, Miller's has the virtue of being a
singular quest for a decidedly dangerous undercurrent in Foucault's work,
but the disadvantage of playing too fast and loose with the texts in
question. Miller's paragraphs are often collages of phrases taken from a
diverse range of sources, sometimes not even from Foucault, but from
those who influenced him. These phrases are pieced together in a jigsaw
puzzle of Miller's own design. Yet the paragraphs imply that the real,
hidden Foucault is finding a voice--perhaps for the first time! This
leads to some breathless insinuations of scandal, but is of course marred
by Miller's jejune methodology. Macey is more thorough and more
competent. Each of Foucault's texts is nicely summed up, and when
quotations are presented, they are freshly translated. Macey knows
French, the language and the culture. He also knows how to place
Foucault in the heady intellectual and political milieu of Paris over the
second half of our century.
[5] If Macey has a thesis here, it is reflected in his
title. The plurality of Foucault's life is striking, in terms of the
many breaks and changes he went through over the years, and also of the
sometimes distinct compartments of his existence. This is not any
different from the way most of us alter our roles from family to friends
to profession, etc. Macey simply cleaves to this recognition despite the
tendency we have to view the life of a renowned figure as a singular
destiny. "A life which becomes the subject of a narrative looks even
more like a destiny, but Foucault's life was as untidy as anyone else's"
Macey reminds us (xix). Perhaps Foucault's life was simply untidy in
more interesting and complicated ways than most. Macey retraces the son,
the student, the young teacher and attache, the author in
various stages of public reaction, from
neglect to sudden fame to embattled infamy,
the private lover, the political activist,
the "professor militant" as clever
administrator, the experimental journalist,
the friend, the victim of AIDS, and of
course, the renowned intellectual. Each of Macey's eighteen chapters
chronicals some distinct phase or aspect of the man we know only as if
through a glass darkly in his texts. Like the "genealogical" breaks and
connections explored through his various
[6] And this relationship between author and
text is where Macey excells. He has learned,
afterall, from Foucault about the abuse of
the "author-function" _and_ about the
intricate nexus between writing and selfhood
as a "technology of the self" or an
"aesthetics of existence." The nexus of
identity, history, and truth is the nexus
which forms Foucault's texts and his life.
This makes any biography of the subject a
complex undertaking. Macey manages to
explore this nexus without either reducing
the life to the text or vice-versa. His
introduction to _Lives_ quotes Foucault's
comment on Raymond Roussel:
"Someone who is a writer is not simply
doing his work in his books, in what he
publishes...his major work is, in the end,
himself in the process of writing his books.
The private life of an individual, his sexual
preference, and his work are interrelated not
because his work translates his sexual life,
but because the work includes the whole life
as well as the text. The work is more than
the work; the subject who is writing is part
of the work" (xiii). Macey's biography practices this understanding.
And his reading of the work is as detailed as it is inclusive, unusually
so for a biography.
[7] Therefore, Foucault is more than an
"author" for Macey. This is also the
narrative of how the work altered the man as
much as how the man altered the way
intellectuals work. Here also is a man who
was all-too-human. A man who valued his
friends so much that he slid readily into
nepotism for academic appointments. Or a man
who wet his pants from laughing too much in a
van headed on a fairly serious international
political mission. Or a man who could fret
over the propriety of napkins at his mother's
house one minute, while insisting on the most
radical possibilities for subjectivities the
next. This biography is infused with a sense
of Foucault's multiplicity, and these brief
touches of the all-too-human are by no means
the main focus. If anything, it is the
complexity of Foucault's work in relation to
his life that receives the most treatment.
[8] Nevertheless, Foucault remains an
enigma--one who wrote only to change himself
in the continual project of his "history of
the present;" one who longed for anonymity
while placing himself decisively in the
intellectual spotlight in France and beyond;
one who seemed unpredictable to others, but
imprisoned to himself. We have the distinct
impression that if he had not already died,
it would be necessary for him to have faked
his own death--in order to begin yet again
the impatient task of recreating himself.


1. For a good critique of James Miller's
biography, _The Passion of Michel Foucault_,
see David M. Halperin's essay, "Bringing Out
Michel Foucault" in Salmagundi, #97, Winter
1993, p. 66. This issue is devoted to a
discussion of Miller's book, and Miller
himself responds to his critics.



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