January 27, 2022

Blaming French theory for the extremes of the American Left has been a popular line for that last few years. Public intellectual Jordan Peterson has blamed “postmodern neo-Marxism” for the rise of a hypersensitive yet coercive activism, connecting the term to everything from safe spaces, to cultural appropriation, to campus protests.

The same move is made by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay in their book Cynical Theories. They argue that the adoption of French theory — particularly the work of Michel Foucault — has given rise to bizarre, grievance-filled academic specialties which threaten all claims to knowledge.

Peterson, Lindsay, and Pluckrose are wrong, and perhaps even guilty of Francophobia. Contrary to their claims, French theory is not the original sin from which our current woes sprang. What’s missed in their analysis are the distinctly American cultural influences driving a political culture of cancellations, violent protests and hypersensitivity.

Let’s focus on the ultimate fall guy for ‘wokeism’, the French philosopher Michel Foucault. If you were to read anti-woke commentary about Foucault, you would be under the impression that his main insights are: nothing is true, all truth is power and all claims to truth are oppressive. This is a deliberately misleading.

Despite what you’ve been told, Foucault was not a rabid ‘activist’ bent on tearing down scientific institutions, but a historian of ideas. His work documents how knowledge changes over time, how some ideas become valorised whilst others get pushed to the margins, and how expertise shifts as a result of cultural and historical change.

He was not denying truth, but helping to place it within a broader historical context. Truth could not help being “a thing of this world”, he wrote. Every society had a regime of truth, and a “general politics” of truth. These are simply types of discourse which society “accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.”

Foucault focused on the history of the “self” noting the scientific quest to understand phenomena such as madness, criminality and sexual deviancy. He frequently refers to “power” in his explanations, but his definition of power is not what you think. It describes a “a mode of action upon the action of others”. There is no moral connotation to Foucault’s use of “power”; it can have both positive and negative effects. His most useful insight is that power can be “constructive” – generating subjectivities that hadn’t previously existed.

In The History of Sexuality, Foucault challenged the “repressive hypothesis” that Western society, beginning in the 17th century right up until the mid-20th century, gradually became more prudish and repressed. Instead, Foucault’s work demonstrates that all societies have had elaborate taboos on sexuality and that they stem from differing understandings of the self. Moreover, the so-called “prudish Victorians” actually led to the proliferation of thought regarding sexual habits that created, rather than repressed, new ways of viewing ones desires. Because of those prudes, the modern “homosexual” was born.

These insights are useful, they show us that our understanding of what makes a human being is often subject to significant change. What Foucault is calling for isn’t activism. It’s humility in the face of history.

Attempts to connect Foucault to the excesses of woke politics have to take some significant conceptual leaps. In Cynical Theories, the authors do this by separating out postmodernism proper from the “applied postmodernism” of activist circles. But this involves turning the descriptive work of scholars like Foucault into a prescriptive model for political action. This isn’t just nit-picking about historical narratives, but crucial to understanding French theory itself.

Foucault was heavily influenced by the work of German philosopher Frederich Nietzsche. His approach to ideas is directly inspired by Nietzsche’s Of The Genealogy of Morality, a work charting the evolution of moral concepts over time. Foucault, like Nietzsche, was highly sceptical of claims of absolute morality, seeing life as a chaotic unfolding of a blind will to power. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche writes:

Even the body within which individuals treat each other as equals … will have to be an incarnate will to power, it will strive to grow, spread, seize, become predominant — not from any morality or immorality but because it is living and because life simply is will to power.

The sheer moral certainty one sees in the American Left — that they are “on the right side of history” as Barack Obama often put it  — doesn’t reflect this more contemplative and historical perspective on the nature of morality. In fact, one valid criticism of many 20th century French intellectuals from Foucault to Derrida to Baudrillard is that they weren’t moral enough. If anything, they frequently circled the drain of nihilism. They stared too deeply into the abyss.

It’s important, then, to note that the emergence of queer, post-colonial, broadly anti-Racist and fat activist movements within the United States have their own local histories. These movements (often labelled “identity politics”) have distinctly American scholarly influences: from Peggy McIntosh’s descriptions of white privilege in “Unpacking The Invisible Knapsack” to Kimberlé Crenshaw’s intersectional approach to anti-discrimination.

Contrary to certain popular accounts, “standpoint theory” which seeks to prioritise personal knowledge and perspectives as a means to objectivity, is not a position advocated for by Foucault, but, instead, by American philosopher Sandra Harding. Foucault never had the view that marginalised individuals held a unique, more authoritative perspective, on the world.

And he always maintained the scholarly virtue of disinterestedness in his work: “I do in fact seek to place myself outside the culture to which we belong, to analyse its formal conditions in order to make a critique of it, not in the sense of reducing its values, but in order to see how it was actually constituted.”

What’s commonly called identity politics emerged out of broader counter-cultural trends of the 1960s. These movements were influenced by American ideas of freedom, and were heavily focused on individual liberation and smashing stuffy bourgeois sentiments. This led to the development of humanist psychologies that promised to maximise individual self-actualisation. The nexus of social justice activism and psychology is still seen today in discussions of “toxic masculinity” and  “implicit bias” as well as the heavy focus on “trauma” and “minority stress”.

Identity politics has never been well received by French thinkers, or even President Macron, either because it is seen as a divisive force — prioritising the personal over the Republic — or it treats historically contingent subjectivities as essentialist. Foucault, who was homosexual, always had an ambivalence to American attempts to categorise desire for the sake of political action. In an interview for the American LGBT magazine The Advocate, he noted his wariness over identity. If it became “the problem of sexual existence” then identity would “become the law, the principle” of people’s existence. Identity then becomes another way of controlling people.

Whilst it’s true American progressives will often cite Foucault and other French theorists as influences, they tend to fragment their work in ways that serve particular purposes. So, The History of Sexuality will be cited to praise a queer liberationist future of a “different economy of bodies and pleasures” — but fail to mention Foucault’s silence as to whether this will be better than the status quo or his critique of identity.

This co-option also tends to downplay the old Left political sympathies of French scholars, many of whom were self-avowed communists (although Foucault’s political leanings were more obscure). There’s also a shift from the contemplative demeanour of French philosophy toward an individualistic emphasis on confrontation, shock and transgression.

François Cusset, in his excellent book “French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida & Co Transformed The Intellectual Life Of The United States” succinctly describes the strange way that French theory was adopted by American universities in the 1980s. American scholars did not study French theory, nor advance it in a meaningful direction. Rather, they co-opted it, and removed so much of its context that it no longer made sense. For Cusset this co-option of French theory in pursuit of American cultural politics was a “structural misunderstanding”.

Rather than blame the French, and Foucault, for current trends in American activism — which are quickly spreading across the globe — it’s crucial to re-evaluate some of values and claims to truth which underpin this activism. I’ve got just the philosopher for the task.