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

Cordelia, I sent you the article because I felt it might address the issue
you had raised. I dabble in Foucauldianism without having any great
understanding of it. Problematization - have you read Charlie Bertsch?
Strangely, the term is not in the best glossary available but in my view
Foucault employs it in a combative sense -a bit like Deconstruction


The Voice of Authority
The Voice of Authority:
Michel Foucault's Problematization of the Intellectual
Charlie Bertsch
Bad Subjects, Issue # 52 , November 2000

What makes somebody an intellectual? It is commonplace to explain the
difference between human beings and other creatures in terms of
intellectual capacity. Although research on higher mammals such as
primates, whales, and even pigs has made it harder to think this
difference in black-and-white simplicity, most people remain confident
their status as exceptions to the rule of nature. Animals may be
conscious, but they are not self-conscious in the way that we are.
may indeed use a kind of language as a means of managing group
but lack the ability to contemplate language from a theoretical
standpoint. They are, in short, deficient in powers of abstraction.
Or at least that's what we like to tell ourselves, as we pat ourselves
the back for having a totally rad species being. Yet this recognition
our exceptional status on the planet rarely leads to the conclusion
everybody is an intellectual. On the contrary, the difference we
between human beings and other creatures is almost always reinscribed
our analyses of society. When we restrict our attention to human
alone, we suddenly find it necessary to distinguish between those few
people who get to deploy their intellectual capacity as
and the rest of the population. This compulsion to draw distinctions
only tenuously connected to the attempt to measure intelligence
quantitatively. It's not like you can submit people to IQ tests in
to determine whether they are intellectuals or not. To paraphrase the
great twentieth-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, you may not
able to establish with absolute certainty that someone is an
but you will still know an intellectual when you see one. If you see
You're far more likely to hear one on National Public Radio or its
equivalents. The bleak reality of our televisual culture is that
heads don't sell. You may see the odd major intellectual speaking
as the voice of authority on some PBS or cable documentary or giving a
lecture on C-SPAN II. But most people who fall into the category of
"intellectual" as it is presently constituted will rarely grace your
screen, unless it doubles as a computer monitor. Unlike models or
politicians, then, intellectuals do not acquire their status on the
of their looks. Yet that status is still a matter of perception. The
people's ideas are received will largely depend on their position in
society. Two individuals may have identical thoughts on a topic, but
only one of them is considered to be an intellectual their words will
probably not be accorded the same respect.
And this phenomenon can even be observed in situations where the
considered to be an intellectual knows a lot less about the topic than
person who isn't. In many cases, expertise actually seems to impede a
person's attempt to be taken seriously. Expertise is in the details.
details are not readily translated into public discourse, precisely
because it takes expertise to understand their importance. We confront
this paradox in political campaigns, where a candidate's experience is
only considered strong if she or he can speak effectively in a
that does not presume too much experience.
There are exceptions to the pattern described above. Within the United
States, for example, there is a longstanding tradition of
anti-intellectualism that regards the division of mental labor with
suspicion. Yet even within that context, the people asked to speak
publicly on matters of concern still tend to be those who are
to be intellectuals. It is they who get invited to give lectures, they
are included in roundtable discussions, they who find it easiest to
a book contract. And the more widely their reputation spreads, the
likely it is that they will be asked to speak, regardless of whether
have the time or inclination to speak from a position of real

Michel Foucault, the influential French social theorist, spent a lot
time thinking about this peculiar circumstance. He was particularly
interested in the production of authority. How does a discourse
legitimacy in the public eye? And how do individuals learn to inhabit
discourse, speaking in the voice of legitimate authority? Foucault
grappled with these questions throughout his career. Although he
eventually became an "insider" within the intellectual life of postwar
France, he never lost sight of the outsiders whose words fall on deaf
ears. In fact, a good deal of Foucault's activism centered on efforts
construct an audience for those outsiders. He also devoted
attention to the fate of those people who, although they spend most of
their time doing intellectual work, are not considered to be
intellectuals; people whose right to speak is circumscribed by
institutional constraints and subtle prejudice.
It is within this context that Foucault developed the idea of the
"specific intellectual." Reacting to Jean-Paul Sartre, who played the
of leading left-wing intellectual with self-confidence, if not
self-righteousness, Foucault tried to imagine an alternative to the
system" exemplified by Sartre. "For a long period, the 'left'
spoke and was acknowledged the right of speaking in the capacity of
and justice. He was heard, or purported to make himself heard, as the
spokesman of the universal. To be an intellectual meant something like
being the consciousness of us all." From Foucault's perspective, this
of intellectual vanguardism had been thoroughly discredited by the
"Some years have now passed since the intellectual was called upon to
this role. A new mode of the 'connection between theory and practice'
been established. Intellectuals have got used to working, not in the
modality of the "universal', the 'exemplary', the
but within specific sectors, at the precise points where their own
conditions of life and work situate them (housing, the hospital, the
asylum, the laboratory, the university, family and sexual relations)."
Foucault takes pains to point out that the rise of specific
need not be interpreted as a reactionary development. "I believe
intellectuals have actually been drawn closer to the proletariat and
masses, for two reasons. First, because it has been a question of
material, everyday struggles, and secondly because they have often
confronted, albeit in a different form, by the same adversary as the
proletariat, namely the multinational corporations, the judicial and
police apparatuses, the property speculators etc." Precisely because
intellectuals of this new kind devote their energy to the sectors in
they have the most expertise, rather than spending it on broad
pronouncements about politics-in-general, they are more able to bring
about tangible change. At least, this is what Foucault believes.
There are a couple of points in Foucault's description of the specific
intellectual that merit closer scrutiny. The first one is that his
reframes left-wing discussions of the workplace. Without explicitly
abandoning the Marxist concept of alienated labor, Foucault encourages
to focus on local struggles within the workplace. That is, he
the possibility that, even as workers are estranged from the product
their labor, they may still use their expertise to improve the
under which they labor. In other words, his argument is something like
one that left-wing trade unionists have traditionally deployed against
radicals who desire only outright revolution. It must be noted, of
that Foucault is thinking primarily of white-collar workers when he
about specific intellectuals, since they are more likely to have the
and the opportunity to think self-reflexively about their work.
It's easy to see how an educated person working for an impersonal,
bureaucratic institution could take solace in the idea of the specific
intellectual. People who imagine themselves to be specific
can concentrate on making interventions at the "local" level, rather
agonizing over the inability to stop the machine from pursuing its
relentless course. At the same time, however, the idea of the specific
intellectual can also function as a convenient rationalization for
who are doing nothing to disturb the status quo. Part of Foucault's
is that academics have largely taken the place that writers once
in the intellectual firmament. Without disputing his thesis that
have become "privileged points of intersection" in the "global process
politicization of intellectuals," it must be stated that there are a
of academics who conceive of themselves as radicals, but function more
like "competent instances in the service of the State or Capital."
The second point to be made about Foucault's argument is simply that
trajectory of his career undercuts it. Although Foucault was
committed to the idea of the specific intellectual, he ended up being
public figure of nearly Sartre's status. And, because he wrote about
a wide range of topics, he became one of those intellectuals asked to
speak on almost any subject. The Publisher's Weekly review of the book
Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings of Michel
Foucault, 1977-1984, quoted on the back of the paperback edition,
the extent to which Foucault eventually found himself in the position
the universal intellectual. "Here is a candid, unbuttoned Foucault who
praises rock 'n' roll as a cultural catalyst, who admits how boring it
to write some of his books, who sounds off on everything from France's
social security system (he hates it) to Khomeini's fundamentalist
revolution (he glorifies it as a manifestation of Iran's collective
will)." In addition to rather blatantly distorting the points Foucault
actually makes in interviews, this passage makes it clear how
mainstream society still expects intellectuals to be big names who
off on everything."

Foucault shouldn't take all the blame for the way his work was
But it should make us more dubious of his thesis. Even if the idea of
specific intellectual has proven useful in local struggles, we still
confront the fact that specific intellectuals who meet with success in
their work have a way of metamorphosing into universal intellectuals.
Stephen Jay Gould to Andrew Ross, there is a long list of contemporary
thinkers who have transcended the boundaries of their disciplines to
become the sort of public figures mentioned in The New York Times.
this mean that people should refrain from talking about matters that
exceed the bounds of their professional expertise? It is hard to
what good such devotion to purity would inspire. After all, when one
person declines to comment on a topic, the media moves on to the next
likely candidate. The word, in other words, is going to get out
of anyone's misgivings about universal intellectuals. If the
who does end up talking to CNN or Newsweek is at least aware of the
problems inherent in seeming to be "the consciousness of all," there
is a
chance that she or he will be able to forestall some of the negative
consequences of becoming a spokesperson.
One strategy would be for well-known intellectuals to redirect the
attention to less familiar names, particularly those who lack a
outlet for their ideas. Donna Haraway might say, "You know, rather
answer your questions about cyborgs, I'm going to give you the name of
graduate student who is doing some really interesting work in the
area." A
lot of public figures already do this, of course. But in this
age, it's increasingly difficult to find reporters with the time to
up on these secondary sources. Not to mention that, like it or not, it
the big names that most people, intellectuals included, look for when
are reading a story.
A more promising approach might be to continue the laborious task of
constructing sustainable outlets for the alternative media, where the
pressures of marketing would be less likely to necessitate a
approach. In the right hands, an alternative weekly or website can
radically reshape our sense of which opinions matter. There's no
why a story about steelworkers coping with new technology couldn't use
steelworkers themselves as sources, not only for details about their
working conditions but also for reflections on the broader
implications of
the new techniques being implemented.
But perhaps the simplest way of complicating a rigid division of
labor would be for intellectuals to pose questions instead of answers.
Asked why he refused to take clear stands on certain political
Foucault would reply that he didn't think it was his task as an
intellectual to do so. He has taken a lot of heat for this seeming
evasiveness. Yet when we place it in the context of his preoccupation
questions of authority, it can be interpreted as a reflection of his
political convictions. If the production of intellectuals cannot be
dissociated from "the multinational corporations, the judicial and
apparatuses, the property speculators," then it is incumbent upon
few individuals who do attain the status of intellectual to resist
speaking in the voice of authority.
Foucault underscores this point in statements about his own practice
as an
intellectual. "The role of an intellectual is not to tell others what
have to do. By what right would he do so?" Once again, Foucault seeks
distinguish himself from Jean-Paul Sartre. Whereas Sartre argued
strenuously that left-wing intellectuals should demonstrate political
engagement, Foucault proposes the opposite. "What can the ethics of an
intellectual be -- and I claim this title of intellectual, though, at
present time, it seems to make certain people sick -- if not this: to
oneself permanently capable of detaching oneself from oneself (which
the opposite of the attitude of conversion)?" As Foucault sees it, the
task of the radical intellectual should not be to engage the politics
the moment, but to disengage them. "The work of an intellectual is not
shape others' political will; it is, though the analyses that he
out in his own field, to question over and over again what is
as self-evident, to disturb people's mental habits, the way they do
think things." These are words to live by, not only for intellectuals
are asked for their "expert" opinion about something in which they
expertise, but for any of us who want our politics to translate into
practical results. After all, if you step far enough back from the
dominant worldview, you could say that every one of us is an
And it wouldn't hurt to try.
Charlie Bertsch teaches in the Department of English at the University
Arizona, and is presently recovering from the break-up of his favorite
band Pavement.

Copyright © 2000 by Charlie Bertsch . All rights reserved. Permission to
link to
this site is granted.

----- Original Message -----
From: "Cordelia Chu" <raccoon@xxxxxxx>
To: "McIntyre" <mcintyre@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>;
Sent: Saturday, December 06, 2003 9:19 AM
Subject: RE: combats with AIDS, and Foucault's personal attitude

> Hi McIntyre,
> I have read this article. In fact, it is Mr. O'Farrell who directed me to
> this mailing list =)
> I guess I am more interested in what Foucault would do at a personal
> hypothetically, if he
> were alive at a time when AIDS is better understood and less severely
> politicized.
> BTW, English is not my first language, so maybe some of you would be kind
> enough to help me
> out. Foucault keeps talking about problematization - but... what does it
> mean? I checked many
> dictionaries, and the word is not there!
> regards,
> -Cordelia
> >===== Original Message From "McIntyre" <mcintyre@xxxxxxxxxxxxx> =====
> > 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
> > recent issues of The Times Literary Supplement over the
> > surrounding Foucault's death from AIDS and also over the contention
> >that
> > Foucault did not believe in 'objective' truth. (See Raymond Tallis,
> >Review
> > article Dec 21, Richard Sennett, letters, Dec 28 2001, John
> >Hargreaves,
> > 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
> > subject of widespread discussion in several languages since his
> >in
> > 1984. The accusation that Foucault deliberately infected his
> >with
> > AIDS is certainly nothing new. Most famously, James Miller,
> >airs
> > the rumour in his 1993 biography. The sensationalist aspects of
> >book
> > have been widely criticised by experts on Foucault's work as well
> >by
> > those who knew him personally. In particular, Didier Eribon, takes
> >strong
> > exception to Millers' approach in a sequel to his own 1991
> >in
> > French, making the pertinent observation that the debates around
> > Foucault's biography all seem to boil down to one issue: how to
> >a
> > biography of a philosopher who was also a homosexual.
> > Even Miller has to admit that he believes the rumours about
> > alleged behaviour to be 'essentially false'. An additional problem
> >with
> > Miller's interpretation and those like it is that it provides a
> >somewhat
> > anachronistic reading of events. One might draw attention, for
> >instance,
> > to the fact that a reliable test for AIDS was not available in
> > 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
> >by
> > doctors. As David Macey, another biographer of Foucault remarks:
> > 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
> >useful
> > advice on the subject of HIV/AIDS or on safe sex. It is certainly
> > that many gay men, including Foucault, expressed initial disbelief
> >the
> > existence of a disease that specifically targeted gay men, seeing
> >as
> > yet another ploy by the medical establishment to exercise social
> >control.
> > But as Michael Bartos a researcher and activist in the area of AIDS
> >and
> > public health policy points out, this attitude changed as firmer
> >medical
> > evidence came to the fore. And as Bartos further notes these kind
> > controversies fall into well worn patterns: 'the accusation that an
> >HIV
> > infected person deliberately sought to infect others through
> >sex
> > is one of the most common tropes of the epidemic. The rumour that
> >Foucault
> > had gone to American bathhouses to deliberately spread HIV should
> >seen
> > for what it is: a commonplace of the demonisation of people with
> >and
> > an iteration of the standard myths of the malevolent importation of
> > HIV/AIDS.'
> > Those who knew Foucault (Richard Sennett amongst them) also argue
> >his
> > rumoured behaviour is simply not consistent with his other
> >and
> > views on social and political responsibility. Far from limiting
> >himself to
> > writing, he worked hard at the most practical organisational level
> > committees advocating the rights of prisoners, immigrants, inmates
> > health institutions and the politically oppressed in countries such
> > Tunisia, Spain and Poland, and on occasions put himself at some
> >physical
> > risk in doing so.
> > Leaving the circumstances of Foucault's death aside, I would now
> >to
> > turn my attention to Raymond Tallis' contention that 'Foucault, as
> >every
> > schoolchild knows, denied that there were such things as objective
> > truths'. John Hargreaves adds to this saying that in Foucault's
> > 'truth is always an instrument of power'. As Foucault insisted on
> >numerous
> > occasions, he was not trying to claim that truth and power were the
> >same
> > thing. Instead, he was interested in the complex relation between
> >two.
> > Arguing that one term is not mutually exclusive of the other is not
> > reduce them to the same thing. However, there is nothing better
> >the
> > horse's mouth to refute the ongoing and widespread perception of
> >Foucault
> > as a historical idealist and postmodern relativist of the most
> > kind. The first passage I can offer in evidence comes from his 1969
> >work
> > The Archaeology of Knowledge (p.186): 'Ideology is not exclusive of
> > scientificity. Few discourses have given so much place to ideology
> > clinical discourse or that of political economy: this is not a
> > sufficiently good reason to treat the totality of their statements
> > being undermined by error, contradiction, and a lack of
> > The second passage is from a book of lectures published last year
> >under
> > the title Fearless Speech (pp.171-3). These lectures were given by
> > Foucault in 1983 in English (lest there be any quibbles about the
> >accuracy
> > of translation here!). He says: 'some people have interpreted [my]
> > analysis as a form of 'historical idealism', but I think such an
> >analysis
> > is completely different. For when I say that I am studying the
> > 'problematization' of madness, crime or sexuality, it is not a way
> > denying the reality of such phenomena. On the contrary, I have
> >to
> > show that it was precisely some real[ity] existent in the world
> >was
> > the target of social regulation at a given moment ... A given
> > problematization is not an effect or consequence of a historical
> >context
> > or situation, but is an answer given by definite individuals ...
> >can
> > 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'
> >remarks
> > would seem to indicate that Foucault's own answers to particular
> >concrete
> > situations continue to impact rather forcefully on the answers and
> > practices of others engaged in dealing with 'real things in the
> >world'.

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