The adversary among us

Michael S. Roth, president of the California College of Arts and Crafts, is the author of "The Ironist's Cage: Memory, Trauma and the Construction of History."

The first time I went to hear Michel Foucault speak in Paris in the winter of 1981, I arrived very early. I knew he was a star: In the United States he was an academic hero who could fill an auditorium at any university. In Paris, Foucault was an intellectual celebrity, an authentic monstre sacre. The press reported or published his views on a wide range of subjects, and no matter what he chose to speak about in a lecture format, he would have an audience of mostly young people eager to hear him report on his latest (usually obscure) research. It was good I came early, for the auditorium in the College de France was almost full, and there would soon be many disappointed intellectual tourists who had to settle for the audio feed in an adjacent hall. Foucault made his entrance and stood in the front of the room. His bald pate rose above the circle of minicassette recorders. What would he say? That morning he spoke of rather obscure details in Greek philosophy. We needed the source text to follow along, but very few of us had it. We were there to see Foucault and hoped to understand why what he was saying about the Greek way of life might be relevant to radically changing our own. We would be encouraged to change, and to see that the signs of change (or of instability) were everywhere around us; but we would learn nothing about what changes were desirable or preferable.

Foucault took his lectures at the College de France very seriously, even if he had no illusions about the nature of his audience and their reasons for being there. He worked on the talks, using them to clarify his thinking and to report on the difficulty of his research agenda. He certainly knew he was a hero to many, a scholarly charlatan to some. He didn’t seem to care. He wanted to discover something in the past that would unlock important aspects of the way we lived now. He wanted to use history to undermine the secure footing of the present; he wanted to explore philosophy in order to make us “think otherwise.”

This was his project in the early 1960s when he wrote “Madness and Civilization,” a book arguing that we needed to control and confine the experience of madness in order to feel confident of reason. This was his project in the 1970s when he wrote “Discipline and Punish,” a book arguing that our progress toward greater civility and humane treatment of prisoners masked the creation of a disciplinary society that enforced ever-greater degrees of conformity. We needed a culture of the prison to conceal the ways in which our civic and educational institutions produced a society of enforced homogeneity. This was his project in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when he showed that our so-called liberation of sexuality concealed a pernicious effort to contain desire in neat categories of identity. We needed a notion of sexual “repression” and techniques to overcome it to obscure how the “power” running through our lives packaged us into beings forced to remain true-to-ourselves and hence less polymorphously adventurous than we might be.

Foucault died in 1984, at age 58, an early victim of AIDS. He was at the height of his powers, and he was still wrestling with some of the most difficult historical and philosophical questions. In his final years he wanted to understand how we came to believe in and practice ethical modes of life. And he wanted to understand how we might find pleasure, and perhaps some happiness, in the constraints and the companionship of these modes of life. He did not think he -- or perhaps anyone else -- could legitimate any particular mode of life.


Foucault gave the lectures that make up “Society Must Be Defended” in 1975 and 1976. The first volume of his history of sexuality (“The Will to Knowledge”) was about to be published, and he was deeply concerned with the relations of knowledge and power. The lectures take a provocative, even aggressive stance, one that seems timely. Foucault’s thesis is as simple as it is bold: He reverses Clausewitz’s dictum “War is a continuation of politics by other means” into “politics is a continuation of war by other means.” In other words, Foucault’s thesis is that war is a permanent feature of political life and that the theory of the legitimacy of political sovereignty is a ruse hiding the ongoing war that is organized political life. Foucault put it neatly: “We are therefore at war with one another; a battlefront runs through the whole of society, continuously and permanently, and it is this battlefront that puts us all on one side or the other. There is no such thing as a neutral subject. We are all inevitably someone’s adversary.”

Foucault argues that there is a hidden thread running through the cultural history of Europe since the English civil wars of the 17th century, a discourse that concentrates on a permanent war between the privileged and the disadvantaged. Perhaps giving in to his delight in provocation, he calls this a discourse of “race war” and praises this discourse as a “counter history” to the march of progress that we are usually sold at school. Since the 18th century, the state tried to control the history of this warfare by calling it something else -- a social contract, for example, or the march of progress. Foucault’s lectures discuss those writers who emphasized the ongoing war that resulted in the creation of the modern state, and he hopes that his own account of that war will undermine the modern state’s very legitimacy as a reasonable alternative to war. By uncovering this counter history and convincing his auditors of its validity, Foucault seems to think he is engaging in a kind of warfare himself.

What’s the strategy behind Foucault’s intellectual skirmishes? In these lectures, as in all his major writings, there is no coherent strategy. Foucault does not think, as, say, a Marxist (or a liberal) might -- that his own contribution to the struggle might result in the revolutionary creation of a society with desirable and legitimate differences from our own. This would demand a narrative or a dialectic that explained or described how we might get there from here. Foucault regards such schemes as oppressive or “disciplinary,” because they foreclose possibilities in favor of a direction or a goal. Instead, he says that “the ground is quaking underneath our feet,” and for him this means that exciting change is about to occur. Do not ask what kind of change, or if this change is for the better. Make war, not plans.

“Society Must Be Defended” appears in English at a curious time. There are no stars in the humanities anymore, perhaps because the intellectual action is so thin, or perhaps because the university has devoted the bulk of its resources to more corporate-friendly forms of knowledge and education. The urge to find “counter histories” has all but petered out, because there are so many out there and because they do so little to help us adjust our prejudices, hopes and ideas. Foucault wanted to be a revolutionary without adhering to a progressive story, and he sometimes wrote as if he expected his audience to take up arms to fight the dominant powers.


In the 1970s Foucault was open to alliances with a variety of tactics that might enhance the capacity for transformation. At the time, his stance was radical, and he accepted violence as a part of what made change possible. Even so, his stance seems relatively innocent -- or silly -- when we think of “tactics” and “arms” as historical or literary research. With a bit of distance, it is difficult to see how his call to “wage war through history” was all that relevant to “changing the ground on which we stood.” And yet, there are many points in “Society Must Be Defended” that provoke reflection and productive concern. The writing is bold and clear, and he challenges accepted theories of sovereignty in a way that undermines cultural histories that depend on notions of individual rights or on security through the social contract.

When Foucault writes that “we have to rediscover war if we want to be the victors,” it certainly sounds different today than it did in 1976. Our leaders have rediscovered war all right, but it seems more important than ever to challenge or disclose their goals for these wars rather than simply to join the fray. It seems important to underline the self-destructive limitations of the idea that “politics is the continuation of war by other means,” because this idea abandons the possibility that politics can be a vehicle for legitimating shared values and action. Despite his commitment to theoretical reflection and his serious archival research, in a fundamental way Foucault rejected any possibility of a political or ethical position being justified beyond its victory in war. Ironically, our current administration has provided this view with currency. However, for us to share in that rejection would be to abdicate any possibility of a shared justice or peace. In 1976 he was prepared to give this up. Are we?