Tuesday, September 12

Critical Lives: Foucault and Debord

Last month’s reading including two recent biographies, on Michel Foucault and Guy Debord, published by Reaktion Books in its Critical Lives series. The paperback, pocket-sized series also includes slim volumes on Picasso, Duchamp, Sartre, Chomsky, Kafka, and a few more.

Not having read a whole lot of original writing by either man—save an essay here or Society of the Spectacle there—I was hoping to squeeze a lot of theoretical juice from both books. Although these two thinkers lived and worked in Paris during the fifties and sixties (and traveled quite a bit internationally), they were incredibly similar yet worlds apart. For instance, the obvious: Foucault moved primarily in academic circles, Debord in bars and cafés. Both were influential in their time (and after) and died tragic deaths: Foucault by AIDS in 1984, Debord by suicide ten years later.

It’s well known that Foucault rarely spoke of his personal life: he struggled with his sexuality at a youth and, even after coming to terms with this, kept it private—being gay was still taboo in gay Paree. His biographer, David Macey, wrote a longer, more extensive work in 1993, called The Lives of Michel Foucault. I can’t compare the two, not having read the earlier book, but I imagine the Reaktion biography is a summary of that, perhaps with a few newly discovered sources.

Macey does a good job of describing the who, what, when, where, why, and how of Foucault’s life: academic appointments and travels are well documented, and names of colleagues and mentors are often dropped. The author, though, fails to adequately summarize or explain what the writer’s major books—for example, Discipline and Punish, The Order of Things, Madness and Civilization—are about, as well as Foucault’s contemporary readers’ emphasis on “discourse.” I found this disappointing. What saves the book, however, is Macey’s chronicle of his subject’s ardent political activism: speaking out on Algeria, Vietnam, Iran, and Spain, alliances with the Maoist La Gauche Prolétarienne, hunger strikes and student protests throughout the seventies were all exciting discoveries. And Foucault was no armchair philosopher, especially in light of his fondness for backroom sex, bathhouses, and LSD. But Foucault’s dismissive attitude toward the new “gay cancer”—AIDS—is unforgivable.

One interesting anecdote: Macey recounts a story from a 1967 interview in which Foucault:
had always been troubled by a nightmare of looking at a text he could not read. He could decipher only a tiny proportion of it, but went on pretending to read it even though he knew that he was making it up as he went along. Suddenly, the whole text became blurred and he could no longer read at all. At that point, his throat felt constricted and he woke up.
Macey then writes, “He never offered any interpretation of his nightmare.”

On the other hand, Andy Merrifield blurs boundaries between the life of Guy Debord and interpretations of his subject’s work, especially in relation to our current political and cultural milieu. Merrifield begins editorializing in many places throughout the book but especially toward the end. I welcomed his slanted, enthusiastic approach after Macey’s clinical treatment of Foucault.

While mostly chronological, the book weaves the narrative of Debord’s life with a multitude of other references, digressions, and interpretations. Summarizing and historicizing Debord’s best-known book and film, Society of the Spectacle, Merrifield sees not only updated Marxism but also strategies of the nineteenth-century Prussian general and war theorist Carl von Clausewitz, “left-wing” Hegel, Machiavelli, and more. Elsewhere, the author describes Debord’s interest in Gypsy culture and Don Quixote. Despite Debord’s lack of academic background (unlike Foucault), he was considerably well read and well grounded.

But nevertheless he had the passion of an anarchist. In his autobiography, Panégyrique (1989), Debord writes, “Even though I have read a lot, I have drunk even more. I have written much less than most people who write; but I have drunk much more than most people who drink.” Thus a biography of Debord’s life, fittingly, is more about action than contemplation. Not to say the two are unrelated, but Debord was more of a shoot-first, ask-questions-later kind of life.

Debord left Paris in the early seventies, for Italy, Spain, and then to reclusion in south-central France. In Italy he was witness (indirectly) to the actions of the Red Brigade. Merrifield interestingly notes, “Debord reviled the Red Brigade itself, yet understood them ironically: he knew that if the Situationist International had lived beyond 1972, it too would have been branded a ‘terrorist’ group….”

There’s too much in the Debord book to summarize here. It is definitely a much better read than the book on Foucault. For all his groundbreaking thoughts on the nature of power, Foucault seemed somewhat less useful to his times until he became an activist himself. But I wonder how much of that activism shows up in his writing, which is how we know him today. Conversely, Debord’s activism was more directly subversive and individualistic, but it seems he’s less influential, perhaps because of his antisocial nature. Still, I’m more inclined to pick up a volume on Situationism than to reach for a one by Foucault.

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