Steven Maynard, ‘Foucault: His Thought, His Character (review)’, Labour / Le Travail, 69, Spring 2012, pp. 255-257
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Reading Veyne, now age 82 and Honorary Professor at the Collège de France, is a bit like listening to an elder patriarch hold forth on his favourite subjects. It’s not without its charm and much can be learned, if one is prepared to put up with the other things that often accompany such a performance.
The digressions. In a book about Foucault, there is an entire chapter on “the beginnings of Christianity.” This is one of Veyne’s own areas of expertise, and one that certainly interested Foucault. While Veyne’s detour can be read as a demonstration of how the genealogical method effectively deflates the universalist pretensions of Christianity, Foucault’s name isn’t mentioned even once in the chapter. This is followed by a long aside on Heidegger. Again, connections could be made, but instead they remain implicit, forcing Veyne, as if suddenly remembering the actual subject of his book, to make the rather awkward transition, “So let us now return to Foucault, our hero.” (73)
The dizzying degree of disparate detail. Veyne tells us Foucault was not a relativist, a structuralist, or a nihilist. But he was a nominalist, perhaps a positivist, and a one-time Communist. He was also, in Veyne’s estimation, a warrior and Samurai. But above all, Foucault was “a sceptic thinker.” (1) Here Veyne is at his best, although it is impossible not to read Veyne’s privileging of skepticism in Foucault’s thought against Foucault’s own arguably greater interest in elaborating a politically useful version of Cynicism in The Courage of Truth, his last lectures at the Collège de France. There is also a goldfish in a bowl, Veyne’s recurring metaphor for how we are all trapped within discourse (Foucault’s “ill-chosen word” ), and a cat that shows up at Foucault’s apartment and upon which Veyne bestows philosophical significance. Readers will likely identify with Veyne when he declares, “My head is spinning,” and this only halfway through the text. (66)
The distinct sense of having heard it all before. Foucault is an elaboration of an essay with a long history, one that goes oddly unacknowledged. It first appeared in 1986 in the French periodical Critique, although its conclusion – Veyne’s recreation of the conversation he had with Foucault about AIDS a few months before the philosopher’s death – was edited out. That intimate exchange later appeared with Veyne’s permission in Didier Eribon’s biography of Foucault, and in 1993 the complete Critique piece was translated into English for the journal Critical Inquiry. Veyne cuts and pastes into Foucault the conversation with his dying friend, almost as if he’s telling it for the first time, which has the effect, at least for this reader, of draining it of the sincerity that made the original so moving.
It’s really only in the last chapter that Veyne takes “the risk of being too anecdotal” (140) to offer some of his more personal memories, which is another way of saying that anyone hoping to find a full memoir of Veyne’s friendship with Foucault will be disappointed. Veyne remains too committed to elucidating “his thought.” And this may not be such a bad thing. A number of Veyne’s reflections on Foucault’s “character,” particularly in relation to sex and gender, give one pause. For instance, Veyne recounts how at a meeting of their cell in the early 1950s Foucault made deliberate use of a feminine homosexual argot to shock Veyne and other comrades into their first awareness of homosexuality within the Parti communiste français (pcf). Veyne reports that 20 years later Foucault “no longer sneered or relayed tittle-tattle. There was nothing at all hysterical about him.” (141) What a relief. We can all rest easy now knowing that one of the 20th century’s greatest thinkers was no flamer. And what is really behind Veyne relating in some detail the story of having once discovered…