Re: combats with AIDS, and Foucault's personal attitude

Letter to The Times Literary Supplement (unpublished)
© February 2002 Clare O'Farrell

I would just like to add my own two cents worth to the controversy in
recent issues of The Times Literary Supplement over the circumstances
surrounding Foucault's death from AIDS and also over the contention
Foucault did not believe in 'objective' truth. (See Raymond Tallis,
article Dec 21, Richard Sennett, letters, Dec 28 2001, John
letters, Jan 11 2002).
The context and details of Foucault's death from AIDS as the recent
discussion indicates remain extremely controversial and have been the
subject of widespread discussion in several languages since his death
1984. The accusation that Foucault deliberately infected his partners
AIDS is certainly nothing new. Most famously, James Miller, publicly
the rumour in his 1993 biography. The sensationalist aspects of this
have been widely criticised by experts on Foucault's work as well as
those who knew him personally. In particular, Didier Eribon, takes
exception to Millers' approach in a sequel to his own 1991 biography
French, making the pertinent observation that the debates around
Foucault's biography all seem to boil down to one issue: how to write
biography of a philosopher who was also a homosexual.
Even Miller has to admit that he believes the rumours about Foucault's
alleged behaviour to be 'essentially false'. An additional problem
Miller's interpretation and those like it is that it provides a
anachronistic reading of events. One might draw attention, for
to the fact that a reliable test for AIDS was not available in France
until the Spring of 1984 and if Foucault may have indeed suspected
that he
had the disease, no positive diagnosis of his condition was ever made
doctors. As David Macey, another biographer of Foucault remarks: 'Days
before his death, his doctors were still saying: "If it's AIDS"'.
Neither were doctors in a position in the early 1980s to offer much
advice on the subject of HIV/AIDS or on safe sex. It is certainly true
that many gay men, including Foucault, expressed initial disbelief in
existence of a disease that specifically targeted gay men, seeing this
yet another ploy by the medical establishment to exercise social
But as Michael Bartos a researcher and activist in the area of AIDS
public health policy points out, this attitude changed as firmer
evidence came to the fore. And as Bartos further notes these kind of
controversies fall into well worn patterns: 'the accusation that an
infected person deliberately sought to infect others through anonymous
is one of the most common tropes of the epidemic. The rumour that
had gone to American bathhouses to deliberately spread HIV should be
for what it is: a commonplace of the demonisation of people with HIV
an iteration of the standard myths of the malevolent importation of
Those who knew Foucault (Richard Sennett amongst them) also argue that
rumoured behaviour is simply not consistent with his other behaviour
views on social and political responsibility. Far from limiting
himself to
writing, he worked hard at the most practical organisational level on
committees advocating the rights of prisoners, immigrants, inmates of
health institutions and the politically oppressed in countries such as
Tunisia, Spain and Poland, and on occasions put himself at some
risk in doing so.
Leaving the circumstances of Foucault's death aside, I would now like
turn my attention to Raymond Tallis' contention that 'Foucault, as
schoolchild knows, denied that there were such things as objective
truths'. John Hargreaves adds to this saying that in Foucault's view
'truth is always an instrument of power'. As Foucault insisted on
occasions, he was not trying to claim that truth and power were the
thing. Instead, he was interested in the complex relation between the
Arguing that one term is not mutually exclusive of the other is not to
reduce them to the same thing. However, there is nothing better than
horse's mouth to refute the ongoing and widespread perception of
as a historical idealist and postmodern relativist of the most extreme
kind. The first passage I can offer in evidence comes from his 1969
The Archaeology of Knowledge (p.186): 'Ideology is not exclusive of
scientificity. Few discourses have given so much place to ideology as
clinical discourse or that of political economy: this is not a
sufficiently good reason to treat the totality of their statements as
being undermined by error, contradiction, and a lack of objectivity.'
The second passage is from a book of lectures published last year
the title Fearless Speech (pp.171-3). These lectures were given by
Foucault in 1983 in English (lest there be any quibbles about the
of translation here!). He says: 'some people have interpreted [my]
analysis as a form of 'historical idealism', but I think such an
is completely different. For when I say that I am studying the
'problematization' of madness, crime or sexuality, it is not a way of
denying the reality of such phenomena. On the contrary, I have tried
show that it was precisely some real[ity] existent in the world which
the target of social regulation at a given moment ... A given
problematization is not an effect or consequence of a historical
or situation, but is an answer given by definite individuals ... You
only understand why this kind of answer appears as a reply to some
concrete and specific aspect of the world.'
If nothing else, the recent controversy sparked by Raymond Tallis'
would seem to indicate that Foucault's own answers to particular
situations continue to impact rather forcefully on the answers and
practices of others engaged in dealing with 'real things in the

Partial thread listing: