Trump avec Foucault
Foucault was fascinated in history's bad boys. He was attentive to the ways in which bourgeois society disciplines people by categorizing and classifying them, to how this process is formative of ethics and subjectivity, and to how this takes place in specific spaces: the prison, the mental health facility, the courtroom, the clinic, the army barracks, and so on. Remaining aloof from moral judgment, he was particularly focused on "the body of the accused"/"the body of the condemned," which he examined and interpreted with a loving attention to detail that bordered on romanticism.
In his works we come across many delightfully roguish characters: for instance, there's Jouy, the "half wit" farm hand from 1867 in Lapcourt, whose story Foucault relates in The History of Sexuality, Volume 1. Nowadays, we would classify Jouy as a pedophile. Foucault refrains from using such a term, but he acknowledges that Jouy had "obtained a few caresses from a little girl" (though he also implies that this was not the first time Jouy had "obtained" such caresses). Jouy was arrested, then locked away at a mental health facility in Maréville. He was clinically, medically examined and questioned, and the results of this examination became a part of the burgeoning psychiatric literature of the nineteenth century. "What is the significant thing about this story?" Foucault asks, and he answers: "The pettiness of it all; the fact that this everyday occurrence in the life of village sexuality, these inconsequential bucolic pleasures, could become, from a certain time, the object not only of a collective intolerance, but of a judicial action, a medical intervention, a careful clinical examination, and an entire theoretical elaboration." To get Foucault's little joke here, one must understand - as a translator's footnote helpfully explains - that the name "Jouy" "sounds like the past participle of jouir, the French verb meaning to enjoy, to delight in (something), but also to have an orgasm, to come." Indeed, "jouissance" had long been the hobby-horse of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, some of whose early lectures Foucault had attended (the early seminars may have been given in Lacan's own home). The implication is clear: until he was compelled to enter the asylum, Jouy represented a kind of unrestrained pleasure, which took what it needed simply, without hesitation or regret, and without feeling a need to explain or talk about itself - a kind of ideal in the Foucauldian imaginary.
Or, then again, there's the mysterious author of the book, "My Secret Life," which was written under the pseudonym of "Walter." No one knows who actually wrote this 4000 page book, which was first published in 1888, and which obsessively catalogues the author's (supposed) life of sexual adventures, especially among London's houses of prostitution. Foucault explicitly compares "Walter" with Jouy, wondering why it is that "Walter" feels compelled to confess the details of his dalliances, including (from what I hear; I haven't read it) incidents of contact with family members (cousins), and servants, and many instances of insufficient consent, if not rape. But it's difficult to say whether this is a factual record or a series of fantasies. (Clearly Foucault drew on the scholarly work of Steven Marcus, a largely unacknowledged major influence on Foucault.)
Then there's Robert-François Damiens, the last person to be drawn and quartered, after he attempted to kill Louis XV in 1757; Foucault discusses his case in Discipline and Punish. Or Pierre Rivière, the young man who, in 1835, took a pruning hook and murdered his mother, sister, and brother. Starting his first year at the Collège de France, Foucault organized a seminar of his best students and colleagues, including Jean-Pierre Peter, and over the course of 2 years, they together studied every scrap of evidence there was to be found about Pierre Rivière's case, eventually co-authoring a book on the subject, "I, Pierre Riviere, having slaughtered my mother, my sister, and my brother: a Case of Parricide in the 19th Century." After Foucault passed away, a volume of his lectures from this period was published; it has been translated variously as The Abnormals or simply Abnormal, and it details many cases of violent criminals, sexual offenders, and madmen. Not that there was anything new about that - these kinds of cases had been a preoccupation for Foucault since before his first major work, Madness and Civilization, published in 1961.
It was impossible to disguise the fascination Foucault had for these men, or the pleasure he took in describing them. I am reminded of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, in which he lovingly describes the murders committed by Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, and their subsequent incarceration and execution. Both Capote and Foucault found a way to take factual information and to use it to express themselves as vividly as if they were writing novels. Foucault was quite explicit that he was inserting fiction into history:
"I am well aware that I have never written anything but fictions. I do not mean to say, however, that truth is therefore absent. It seems to me that the possibility exists for fiction to function in truth, for a fictional discourse to induce effects of truth, and for bringing it about that a true discourse engenders or ‘manufactures’ something that does not as yet exist, that is, ‘fictions’ it. One ‘fictions’ history on the basis of a political reality that makes it true, one ‘fictions’ a politics not yet in existence on the basis of a historical truth."
Thus we find the appearance of a kind of genre: alongside Magical Realism, here is Fantasy-History. Foucault's lectures were attended by thousands of students who were as passionate, as ravenous for this material as he was. His texts unlocked something inside of them, and he was not unaware of this power. Indeed, he wrote about what he called the "experience text" - a text that can be judged not merely on the basis of its factual accuracy, or the number of scholarly citations that point to it, but on the effect that it has on a reader, changing the reader, evoking something, often unleashing something.
Foucault was quite frank about being influenced by the Marquis de Sade, and by Nietzsche, and Heidegger, and also by Bataille and especially Andre Breton. I think especially of Breton's iconic (and semi-autobiographical) surrealist masterpiece, Nadja, in which the titular character is locked up in a mental asylum, giving the narrator a chance to fume against the psychiatric profession and the "reign of logic" that has overtaken modern society. We might as well mention Allen Ginsberg's Howl, dedicated to Carl Solomon, who was, at the time, locked up in the New York State Psychiatric Institute.
Why this relentless fascination with the bad guys, with the people that society had deemed monsters? Given Foucault's penchant for writing about such a wide variety of topics, from the paintings of René Magritte and Las Meninas by Velasquez to what it means to be an author, from Kant's conception of the Enlightenment to the poetics of sex in Ancient Greece, it can be difficult to see any overarching theme to his oeuvre, or even to know how his books should be categorized: political theory? Cultural theory? Art? Psychology? Sociology? Philosophy? History? Or, as he himself said, fiction? But this question can be turned around into its own answer. The theme was precisely the lack of a theme, and his utter refusal to be categorized; the foundation, his anti-foundationalism; the organizing structure, and the topic to which he turned again and again, in a thousand different ways, was liberty. Foucault's work can be considered a theory of liberty, but only on the condition that it is understood that for Foucault, no theory could be the foundation for liberty - not Marxist theory or any other kind. To divide society into the oppressors and the oppressed, as Marxism tends to do, was too simplistic for Foucault, for in his mind, power "comes from everywhere" and every form of power creates its own resistance. Theory could only ever be the practice of liberty. As Foucault put it,
"I do not think it is possible to say that one thing is of the order of 'liberation' and another is of the order of 'oppression.' [...No] matter how terrifying a given system may be, there always remain the possibilities of resistance, disobedience, and oppositional groupings.
[...] I do not think that there is anything that is functionally - by its very nature - absolutely liberating. Liberty is a practice."
Can we say that Foucault was a populist? That he became the charismatic leader of a populist movement in philosophy, or better, in theory? His books became runaway bestsellers, a condition that is largely unknown in the philosophy section of the bookstore. Young men thrilled to the wild liberation at which they seemed to hint. Later, Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau, post-Marxist theorists who took from Foucault his concept of discursive formations as regularities of dispersion, became soi-disant populists, associated with Peronism in Argentina. I would argue that Foucault was more of a populist than Trump ever was.
In Foucault's relentless yearning for an unbridled subjectivity (and, often, an unbridled masculinity) I cannot help but see a parallel with the Trump movement. How was it that so many in America and all over the world came to feel such a passionate identification with Trump? From Kanye West, who enthused about Trump's "male energy," and said that wearing a MAGA hat made him feel like a "superhero," a feeling he hadn't had since his mother and father separated... to the Hindu nationalists who revere Trump, like Bussa Krishna, who worshipped him like a god, Trump's followers love him not in spite of his transgressions, but because of them. They love him not in spite of his being a con man, but because he is a con man - just as we love gangster rappers not in spite of the fact, but precisely because they are (supposedly) gangsters.
Much has been made of Trump as avatar of the post-truth world, of which Foucault is the most famous theorist - a world in which, as Robert Anton Wilson once put it, "Reality is what you can get away with." Foucault can be a lens through which we can understand the Trump movement, a movement that might otherwise be difficult to decipher. For Foucault, truth functioned within a certain discourse in relation to a regime of power. Power was not merely repressive of the truth, but constitutive of it. There is no "real reality" that underlies all human institutions, no "nature" that is metaphysically prior to history. Power is productive - we might say that power is engaged in "fabrication." In a developed system of capitalism like ours, the most powerful form of power is capital, and so it is not entirely surprising that a person capable of challenging the prevailing consensus reality would himself be a capitalist. And in the wake of a crisis of capitalism like the one we saw in 2008, which saw the collapse of a real estate bubble, in which millions of mortgages were defaulted, and the repackaged debt wreaked havoc in financial markets, is it completely surprising that people sought salvation and a return to stability from a famous real estate tycoon? For decades, Trump associated himself with construction, in order to style himself as a builder and job creator. And here again we find a connection with Foucault, who famously brought the insights of cartography and architecture into the realm of philosophy and the analysis of power.
One of Foucault's most important concepts was that of "normalization". Idealized norms of conduct haunt our every social interaction and even our solitary moments. Underlying all of the questions that civilization, in the Age of Reason, allows us to debate are certain norms that may not be questioned and often are never even explicitly articulated. Foucault unremittingly investigated how it is that norms are constructed and how they are imposed upon bodies through discipline and surveillance. Foucault noticed, for instance, the extreme attention to minute details of body posture, for instance in a soldier's stance. In the architecture of the panopticon, a subjected body understands itself as always being watched, even when no one occupies the point of surveillance. Donald Trump's defining characteristic is his inability, or refusal, to obey the norms that Americans took for granted. He is the spectacular Abnormal. He certainly never "looked" "presidential." Even his body posture is not normal.
Many find reason threatening. But for some decades, the Democratic Party in the United States has presented itself as the party of Reason. This has only intensified lately: Reason seems to be going into battle against its enemies. (See, for instance, Al Gore's book, The Assault on Reason.) For millions of Americans in 2015/2016, Hilary Clinton represented Reason in its most fearsome, Nurse Ratched aspect: the do-gooder meritocracy of the neoliberal Washington consensus, with its undeniable "there is no alternative" arguments, appeared as a suffocating univocity from which there was no escape. Thus, at some instinctive level, they came to feel that clinging to some remnant of free will meant, at least to some degree, rejecting reason. And then Trump appeared, as if summoned by their very inchoate yearnings, like a bodily incarnated return of the repressed.
To understand the Trump phenomenon, one must understand the body of Trump, the flesh of Trump - one must understand how fat he is. Trump represented masculinity - not an ideal of masculinity, any kind of ratio of perfection - but precisely masculinity in excess. And this is not a beautiful excess. He certainly doesn't seem like a big-dick stallion, or a musclebound, sculpted bodybuilder. This is a petty, arrogant, preening, gross, eating, sniffing, sweating, farting masculinity. It is a fascinating ugliness, a trainwreck from which one cannot look away. With his ill-fitting trousers, his arms that he seems not to know what to do with, his famous love of fast food, he is a fantasy of shamelessness. The obvious comb-over and spray-on tan are a nice touch, part of the fantasy of unchecked vanity (vain in both senses of the word: first, superficial narcissism, and second, unsuccessful attempt, incompleteness, failure). If they were more professionally done, more seamless, they wouldn't satisfy us as much, they wouldn't quite scratch the itch. Other politicians may be charismatic because of their personal beauty; Trump's charisma, and even his eroticism, is precisely in his ugliness.
Trump appeals to our love of the surreal and the absurd, the face of a Francis Bacon or a Ralph Steadman. A Freudian would immediately think of our habit of looking, or not looking, at our own poops. The solid gold toilet that he has been rumored to own (sadly, this seems to be an urban legend, although apparently the Guggenheim really did offer to loan a solid gold toilet to the Trumps) fits perfectly into our collective imaginary - at some level, we think that the concept of a solid gold toilet is absurd, and a stinging rebuke, while at another level, some part of us thinks "I want to shit on a golden toilet."
Trump is the personification of repressive transgression. That
transgression can be repressive should not surprise us. After all, rape
is real, as is sexual assault. Trump stormed into the White House
after the release of his notorious "Access Hollywood" tape, in which he bragged to George H.W. Bush's nephew, Billy Bush about his sexual aggression toward Bush's co-host, Nancy O'Dell, "I moved on her like a bitch [...] I moved on her very heavily," and further bragged that he was about to engage in similar behavior with "Days of Our Lives" star Arianne Zucker: "I just start kissing them [...] And when you're a star, they let you do it. [...] Grab 'em by the pussy. You can do anything." The October surprise of the Access Hollywood tape failed to prevent him from being elected; perhaps it cemented his image as the agent of chaos that some of his followers were seeking, consciously or unconsciously - the delirious eruption of a free flowing id.
One of Foucault's final works was a series of lectures he gave in 1983, the year before he died, which was later published as Fearless Speech. In this work, Foucault focuses on the ancient Greek concept of parrhesia, sometimes translated as "free speech," though for Foucault, to translate it thus was to anachronistically assimilate it to the values of a modern bourgeois democracy. For Foucault, the essence of parrhesia was not any kind of "right" and certainly no guarantee, but rather risk: "If, in a political debate, an orator risks losing his popularity because
his opinions are contrary to the majority's opinion, or his opinions
may usher in a political scandal, he uses parrhesia. Parrhesia, then, is
linked to courage in the face of danger: it demands the courage to
speak the truth in spite of some danger. And in its extreme form,
telling the truth takes place in the 'game' of life or death." Precisely a speech's ability to disrupt the underlying norms of a regime of discourse mark out its capacity for parrhesia. Foucault's example is Diogenes of Sinope, who shocked Athens by, among other things, living almost naked in a barrel, masturbating in public, and urinating on those who disagreed with him.
Foucault's later work focuses on biopower, "the set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species became the object of a political strategy, of a general strategy of power, or, in other words, how, starting from the 18th century, modern Western societies took on board the fundamental biological fact that human beings are a species." For him, this was "an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies." In earlier works, such as Madness and Civilization, Birth of the Clinic, and Discipline and Punish, Foucault had focused on techniques of the control of individuals, especially within an institution like a medical facility. But in later works, such as The History of Sexuality, he looked outside of these institutions to see how practices of public health and risk regulation could be "deployed to manage populations" in their entirety.
At the center of these investigations is the general concept of what he called "governmentality." This idea has been developed in several different directions by scholars working in Foucault's tradition. For instance, the British Foucauldian sociologist Nikolas Rose has developed his theory of what he calls "Healthism": "individuals are addressed on the assumption that they want to be healthy
and enjoined to freely seek out the ways of living most likely to
promote their own health" as a technique of rendering bodies governable, compliant, docile.
Already when he was elected in 2016, Trump attracted the adulation of a segment of the population known as anti-vaxxers, who were otherwise unrepresented by mainstream politicians. These people were, for various reasons, opposed to vaccination - some for religious reasons, some because they believed in a fringe debunked theory that vaccination caused autism, and some because they had far more elaborate conspiracy theories. Trump himself was careful never to espouse any of these ideas specifically, but he made it clear to the anti-vaxxer community that he was their man. By the end of his term, as the USA faced the worldwide pandemic of Covid-19, a segment of the population that refused to wear masks and otherwise comply with the expertise of the medical establishment became associated with Trump. The very phrase "socially distancing" is one that is fraught with too many Foucauldian resonances to get into in this brief essay. Let it suffice to say that the mask became a political signifier even and especially among a subset of the population that sought to resist the politicization of medicine and the medicalization of politics. That such people were, in effect, fighting for the right to die exposes the deeper meaning of biopolitics, and here we see the Heideggerian "being-towards-death" aspect of Foucauldian ideology, which rigorously thinks through the finitude of human existence: resistance to biopower, in the final instance, means refusing the order of life.
For Foucault, a protest was not primarily a means of expressing an ideological idea. Resistance was, for him, something irreducibly bodily, carnal. Power took a wide variety of forms in modern society, which he catalogued gamely, but never lost its primary connection to physical force - the act of a body occupying space. He would not have reacted with a liberal's shock, moral indignation, and offense at the violence of Trump's movement occupying the Capitol building. Indeed, he had participated in actions with a similar degree of roughness, such as when he and others protested to free Klaus Croissant, accused by the German government of terrorism, and physically blocked the path of the police escort. During the ensuing scuffle, a police officer rained blows of a truncheon, breaking one of Foucault's ribs. For Foucault, the physical struggle of rebellion and revolution - regardless of the ideological content of any political program - could be a "limit-experience," a moment of living with such intensity that quotidian subjectivity is broken (Lacan had previously examined the notion of the "limit-experience," particularly in sado-masochism). The Capitol incursion was "limit-experience" as farce: a show of force utterly devoid of meaningful political content, comically empty. After the rioters smashed through the windows and doors, they stayed within the velvet ropes. Limit-experience as tourism.
Those who stormed the Capitol building were fighting for a "liberty" that was not grounded in any coherent theoretical foundation that distinguished clearly between oppressors and oppressed (witness the way they were willing to fight and kill police officers while chanting that "blue lives matter"). For any traditional political movement this lack of coherence would be a bug, but from a Foucauldian perspective, it is a feature. Nor would the fundamentalist religious beliefs of many of the Capitol invaders have been an automatic disqualification for Foucault. In the 70s, Foucault famously turned away from the rigid secularism that was de rigueur among French intellectuals, and by the decade's end, he was extolling the virtues of the Iranian revolution and its theocratic regime.
By the end of his career, Foucault was critically investigating
neoliberal thinkers and his theory would prove useful to the
pro-capitalist "nouveaux philosophes" (Bernard Henry-Levy, et al). It's tempting, therefore, to think of Foucault as a kind of neoliberal thinker - but this would be a mistake. Foucault's movement within theory emerged out of the anti-psychiatry movement, alongside people like R.D. Laing and Thomas Szasz. But these thinkers defended the individual subject with its personal freedom and responsibility, and saw the psychiatric establishment as representing an incursion and repression of this basic, natural liberty. Foucault reversed this, seeing how institutions like the asylum did not repress a subjectivity so much as produce it. Neoliberalism is premised upon the fundamental existence of the individual, and the derivative (and dubious) existence of society - as Thatcher put it, "There's no such thing as society." Foucault reverses this, and questions the foundational existence of the individual. If the individual exists, it exists only as the product of institutions of power. Trumpism can be seen as a strange parallel of this theory: as Foucault was already post-neoliberal, an avatar of what some have begun to call "dividualism," emphasizing the unstable, divided self, without any core or essence of selfhood, so Trump embodies this perfectly: a complete emptiness, without any coherent worldview or set of principles, except perhaps naked will-to-power. The childish ideology of Foucault comes to its perfect culmination in Trump. Now it will be silenced.
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