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Foucault on Drugs: The Personal, the Ethical and the Political in Foucault in California



Review Essay on: Simeon Wade, Foucault in California [A True Story – Wherein the Great French Philosopher Drops Acid in the Valley of Death], foreword by Heather Dundas. (Berkeley, California: Heyday, 2019). 144 pp, ISBN 9781597144636 (hardback).
© Kurt Borg
ISSN: 1832-5203
Foucault Studies, No. 28, 142-164, September 2020
Foucault on Drugs:
The Personal, the Ethical and the Political in
Foucault in California
Simeon Wade, Foucault in California [A True Story Wherein the Great French
Philosopher Drops Acid in the Valley of Death], foreword by Heather Dundas.
(Berkeley, California: Heyday, 2019). 144 pp, ISBN 9781597144636 (hardback).
Foucault’s ‘LSD story’ is popular among anyone who knows a thing or two about the
French philosopher. Foucault dropped a tab of acid, the story goes, with Simeon Wade,
an assistant professor at Claremont Graduate School, and Michael Stoneman, a pianist
and Wade’s partner, at the Zabriskie Point of Death Valley in California in May 1975. The
three ‘authoritative’ biographies of Foucault (and the implications of writing a biography
of Foucault are discussed below) Didier Eribon’s 1989 Michel Foucault, David Macey’s
1993 The Lives of Michel Foucault and, especially, James Miller’s 1993 The Passion of Michel
Foucault all refer to this LSD episode:
[French author and friend of Foucault’s] Claude Mauriac reports a conversation he had
with Foucault in 1975: “LSD, cocaine, opium, he tried them all, except of course, heroin,
but mightn’t he even try that in his present dizzy state?”
California, in the shape of two gay academics, also offered LSD, which Foucault now
took for the first time. The occasion was almost ceremonial, and had as its setting the
desert, and as its background accompaniment a tape of Stockhausen. Rumours abound
about the acid trip; this is one of the Foucault stories that everyone seems to know. […]
In November 1975, Foucault spoke nostalgically to Mauriac of ‘an unforgettable evening
on LSD, in carefully prepared doses, in the desert night, with delicious music, nice
people, and some chartreuse’.
Didier Eribon, Michel Foucault (1991), 315.
David Macey, The Lives of Michel Foucault (1993), 339-340.
Foucault Studies, No. 28, 142-164. 143
And so it was that Michel Foucault, “militant and professor at the College de France,”
found himself, improbably enough, perched on the edge of a cliff in the middle of a
desert in the spring of 1975, stoned on LSD.
The LSD episode is also mentioned in the April-May 1975 entry of Daniel Defert’s
chronology of Foucault’s life:
Discovers the hedonistic culture developed by Californians around drugs, takes LSD at
Zabriskie Point in Death Valley: “Drugs: a break with this physics of power, work,
consumption, localization (letter).
Out of the three biographies, it is Miller who gives the longest account of this California
experience. This is not surprising since Miller’s biography is known for drawing heavily
on Foucault’s personal experiences, particularly his interest in ‘limit-experiences’
, as the
interpretative key to the philosopher’s work. While Eribon and Macey refer to Foucault’s
LSD experience in passing, Miller dedicates a whole chapter, titled “The Will to Know”,
to this episode; a colourful chapter peppered with his own reflections on homosexuality
and S/M practices. The reason why Miller had so much information on Foucault’s
California trip is that he could base his account on a by-then “unpublished 121-page
typescript by Simeon Wade, Foucault in California.”
Miller also met and interviewed Wade
in 1989 and clarified details in subsequent phone calls. Based on this information as well
as conversations with Foucault’s partner Daniel Defert, and Leo Bersani, with whom
Foucault dined when he returned to San Francisco after the acid trip Miller argues that
he could conclude that this was, as he claims Foucault called it, “the greatest experience
in his life an epiphany.”
Miller claims, grandiosely, that this episode was so pivotal that
“[a]s a result of these experiences, Foucault’s thought would take a dramatic new turn,
transforming, in paradoxical and surprising ways, his continuing effort to illuminate what
Nietzsche had called ‘the riddle which man must solve’ the riddle of his own singular
This California story was recently revived once more, and was featured quite
prominently in various news websites and other popular outlets, because Wade’s memoir
was published in early 2019. Wade died in October 2017, aged seventy-seven. What
prompted the publication of Foucault in California was the effort of Heather Dundas, a PhD
candidate in literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California. In
her foreword to the memoir, Dundas recalls how she found it unbelievable that “a
philosopher of Foucault’s standing would have had the time to take a trip with two
strangers, and even harder to believe that he would, at age forty-nine, agree to experiment
James Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault (1993), 246.
Daniel Defert, “Chronology,” in A Companion to Foucault, ed. Christopher Falzon, Timothy OLeary, Jana
Sawicki (2013), 58.
Michel Foucault, “Interview with Michel Foucault,” in Power: Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, Volume
3, ed. James D. Faubion (2000), 241-257.
Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault, 437n.1.
Ibid., 245.
Foucault Studies, No. 28, 142-164. 144
with psychedelic drugs with these strangers.”
Foucault would have been, in fact, forty-
eight (not forty-nine; he is an October-born and this episode dates to May 1975), and even
cursory knowledge of Foucault’s life would suggest that this story might be true. Dundas
confesses that she “hated Foucault, who seemed to embody all the privilege and arrogance
of the theory movement.
Upon hearing about Wade’s unpublished manuscript,
Dundas contacted Wade and eventually developed a friendship with him. Despite
mentioning the manuscript, photographs of the encounter and letters he exchanged with
Foucault, Wade could not retrieve these materials, and Dundas found little evidence to
support his story, forcing her to suspect that “Wade was just an old, lonely guy who told
tall tales about his one brush with celebrity.”
Until, that is, she came across a photo in a
1981 edition of Time magazine showing Wade, Stoneman and Foucault together. Then,
one day, Wade showed Dundas the manuscript, copyrighted in 1990, and allowed her to
photocopy it. Wade claims that Foucault had read the Foucault in California manuscript
and approved its publication, but surprisingly, given the certainty that such a story
would sell Wade said that no publishing house accepted to publish it.
Foucault in California admittedly makes for entertaining reading, irrespective of how
true its contents are. The manuscript is filled with somewhat humorous dialogue, such as
the following account of when Wade proposes the trip to Foucault:
“We have prepared something special for you to take in the desert,” I interjected.
“What’s that?” Foucault asked wide-eyed.
“We brought along a powerful elixir, a kind of philosopher’s stone Michael happened
upon. We thought you might enjoy a visionary quest in Death Valley.”
The landscape alone is liable to have something of a magical effect upon you. It is a kind
of Shangri-la, protected from microwave radiation and other forms of pollution.
“I would like that,” Foucault responded without the slightest hesitation. “I can hardly
wait to get started.”
Or when Foucault nonchalantly accepts to consume some marijuana and recounts the
‘Chomsky hash’ story:
“Would you care to smoke some marijuana? One of Simeon’s students gave us a joint,
which you are welcome to,” Mike added.
“Yes, I would like a joint,” Foucault affirmed.
“Have you ever smoked grass before?” I inquired.
“I have been smoking it for years, particularly when I was in North Africa, where they
have marvelous hashish.”
Heather Dundas, “Foreword,” vii.
Dundas, “Foreword,” viii.
Ibid.,” xiii.
Simeon Wade, Foucault in California, 31-32.
Foucault Studies, No. 28, 142-164. 145
“And do you smoke grass in Paris?” I persisted.
“Grass is very hard to come by in Paris, but I smoke hash whenever I can get a hold of
We have been in good supply recently, thanks to Noam Chomsky.”
“How did that happen?” I asked.
“I appeared with Chomsky on TV in Amsterdam, and after the show the sponsors of the
program asked me what kind of remuneration I would like. I told them that I would like
some hashish, and happily they complied with my wish with a large block of the stuff.
My students and I refer to it as the Chomsky hash, not because Chomsky himself had
anything to do with it but because he occasioned it.”
There seems to be little doubt that most of the episodes described in Foucault in California
did indeed happen. Nor is it doubted that the Death Valley experience was a positive one
for Foucault, perhaps even a meaningful one. The key question, though, is how central this
experience in itself was in determining the direction of Foucault’s work, particularly its
shifts in the late 1970s and 80s. As is argued towards the end of this essay, the reason (or,
at least, a more real one) behind Foucault’s shift in research, especially his abandoning of
the original The History of Sexuality plan, is a more sober and academic one, despite Wade’s
(and, following him, Miller’s) claim that this LSD experience was the determining cause.
This essay I) gives an overview of the story that is dramatically recounted in Foucault
in California, and then engages with Wade’s memoir from three different perspectives: II)
by looking at what Foucault himself said and wrote on drugs and his experiences with
them, in order to situate what Foucault may have experienced during this California
episode within his broader outlook on drug use; III) by reviewing what has been made of
this LSD story (and supposed revelations about his sexuality) in Foucault’s biographies;
and IV) by evaluating Wade’s claims about the singular importance of this trip with
regard to Foucault’s eventual research trajectory. The essay concludes by proposing
perhaps better ways of interpreting Foucault’s California story in light of his views on the
ethics and politics of the self-transformation.
The story starts when Wade is informed that Foucault will be giving a number of seminars
at the University of California in Berkeley in the spring of 1975. Wade was a great admirer
of Foucault:
Michel Foucault was my hero, and at last there was a possibility of meeting him. He was
already considered one of the most prominent French intellectuals of the twentieth
century. I regarded Michel Foucault as nothing less than the greatest thinker of our time,
Wade, Foucault in California, 23-24.
Foucault Studies, No. 28, 142-164. 146
perhaps of all time. To compare him to any other is like lighting a candle in the
At the time, Wade was an assistant professor at Claremont Graduate School running a
European Studies Program, and he took this visit as an opportunity to invite Foucault to
Claremont. Apart from the opportunity to meet the philosopher in person, Wade thought
that this visit would “help to consolidate our little avant-garde outpost in one of the most
reactionary regions of California.”
He sent a letter to Foucault, inviting him to
Claremont, and Wade recalls that Foucault “replied succinctly that he would very much
like to visit us but that since he did not know his schedule or his responsibilities at
Berkeley he would have to wait until his arrival in California before making any travel
plans. He requested that I write to him at Berkeley.”
And Wade did, suggesting a trip to
Death Valley and a “projected schedule of seminars, lectures, and parties.”
Foucault did
not reply. But this did not deter Wade, who went to Foucault’s lecture at Irvine in May
1975 to try to lure the philosopher to Claremont. Foucault apologised for not replying and
said that due to the many engagements he had during this California trip, he did not think
that he would be able to make it to Claremont this time round. After some more
persuasion from Wade, Foucault asked him to call him again at his Berkeley office. Wade,
of course, did so, and this time he was rewarded with a confirmation from Foucault. The
subsequent chapters of Foucault in California are an account of the Death Valley trip, as
well as moments that Wade and Stoneman shared with Foucault throughout those days.
Of course, all this is written from Wade’s point of view, and it is not possible to verify
several of the details of these descriptions. Thus, unless specified otherwise, what follows
is based on Wade’s account.
Wade and Stoneman pick up Foucault from the airport and discuss the climate,
differences between California and Paris, work, and music as they drive him to their
house. There, Foucault expresses his liking of Stoneman’s paintings and Wade’s
photography affixed on the walls, reveals his love of dogs, and tells Stoneman that, while
he does not do yoga, he does gymnastics to stay in shape.
They relish in cocktails, with
Foucault revealing that he found the Tequila Sunrise to be “delicious, rather exotic, and
the salt is a great idea,”
but his favourite was a Bloody Mary. They drink, eat (Foucault
“always ate sparingly”
), consume marijuana, discuss books (Foucault expresses his
admiration for books such as Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society, Deleuze’s Proust and Signs,
and R. D. Laing’s Knots),
literature and poetry. The conversations also reveal the
Wade, Foucault in California, 3.
Ibid., 7.
Ibid., 10.
See ibid., 20-21.
Ibid., 23.
See ibid., 27-28.
Foucault Studies, No. 28, 142-164. 147
importance Foucault gave to music in his life, and how fondly he spoke of the French
composer Pierre Boulez and his work.
After breakfast at dawn, Wade proposes the plan of taking LSD in Death Valley to
Foucault, which he agrees to. Their conversations flow; in one moment they discuss drugs
and in another they turn to contemporary cinema, with Foucault also mentioning his
involvement in the making of the Pierre Rivière film. Revealingly, or perhaps
symptomatic of certain quarters of academe, instances of discussing someone’s work
often also include gossip: “Godard is a political bitch!;”
“Oh, that Artaud was such a
However, such off-guard conversation also reveals moments of Foucault
speaking highly of figures he admired or considered as an influence on him: “Genet and
I are very close;”
“Merleau-Ponty was much more influential for my generation than
Sartre. He was a rigorous scholar that we all could admire;”
“Gramsci was much more
important to me when I was younger and in the Communist Party;”
“Althusser has been
for me a teacher and a guide.”
Wade describes the surroundings they drove through, the small desert towns, the
remote villages, picnicking overlooking Panamint Valley on a hot day (“It was 115 degrees
). By mid-afternoon, they stop over in a resort, where Foucault naps. As they
prepare the magical potion,”
Foucault expresses hesitance and asks to take half of the
prepared dose rather than the full amount. After some persuasion from Wade, Foucault
agrees to ingest the full dose: “Following instructions, he wet the tip of his finger, then
pressed down the substance against his bottom teeth and gulped audibly.”
As the effect
of the drug starts to kick in, they “help it along with grass and liqueur,
talk about art
(particularly Magritte), music (“Music is our theology,”
Foucault announces at one
point), and past loves. At the peak of the high, they reach Zabriskie Point: “Foucault
smiled and made a sweeping gaze of the heavens. ‘The sky has exploded and the stars are
raining down upon me. I know this is not true, but it is the Truth,’” Wade has Foucault
saying; “‘I am very happy,’ he told us, tears streaming from his eyes.”
They return home, nap, have breakfast after a few hours and return to Zabriskie Point
during daytime and take pictures together. They return to Claremont for Foucault to
See Michel Foucault, “Pierre Boulez, Passing through the Screen,” in Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology:
Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984 Volume 2, ed. James D. Faubion (1998), 241-244.
Wade, Foucault in California, 33.
Ibid., 56.
Ibid., 35.
Ibid., 81.
Ibid., 82.
Ibid., 83.
Ibid., 48.
Ibid., 50.
Ibid., 51.
Ibid., 58.
Ibid., 61.
Foucault Studies, No. 28, 142-164. 148
deliver a talk “about the nature of power in contemporary society”
in the midst of the
LSD ‘afterglow’. In the evening after the lecture, Foucault attends a party that is organised
for him at Wade’s place: “He was consistently courteous, even with overzealous
Wade recounts how the attendees ask Foucault all sorts of questions on
women’s liberation and the gay movement, Sartre and Camus, the study of literature, and
his impressions of California. Despite Foucault’s willingness to entertain interlocutors,
students and professors alike, with frankness, Wade remarks that: “At that moment I
realized just how much Michel hated the spotlight.”
As he is leaving the party, Foucault
encounters David, a friend of Wade who lived in a mountain cabin. Foucault agrees to
take a hike to Bear Canyon to visit David’s cabin on a subsequent occasion.
Wade writes that “[t]he next morning”
they go on a hike to meet David and a group
of Wade’s friends, “four of whom lived in cabins throughout the canyon, composing a
kind of Taoist commune.”
Foucault relishes in conversations with these men, and
responds to their questions with graciousness and openness. These dialogues, as
recounted by Wade, include references to a wide range of thinkers and theorists:
Bachelard, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Braudel, Marx, Gramsci, Althusser, Nietzsche.
However, these dialogues also present a ‘more private’ Foucault engaging in theory-free
dialogue about his own experiences and outlook on life. He answers point-blank
questions by a young man on how to deal with feeling lost in life (‘You are not really
trying unless you are lost. That is a good sign. I was lost as a young man too
), and on
whether he is happy (‘I am happy with my life, not so much with myself’
). The memoir
ends with a transcript of a discussion Foucault had with students in the Founders Room
at Claremont, and concluding chapters in which Wade describes driving Foucault to the
airport and stopping mid-way at a coffee shop for some parting conversations and, Wade
tells us, “[a]s Foucault hugged and kissed us goodbye he metamorphosed successively
into the Deleuzian becomings: child, woman, marmoset, leopard, crystal, orchid, water
lily, stammerer, nomad, stranger, intense music, and finally, his ultimate dream,
This California episode was not a chance encounter that Foucault had with drugs. As
various references in his works show, Foucault thought that there was an ethics and
Wade, Foucault in California, 67. This should be the discussion in the Founders Room, replicated at the end
of Foucault in California.
Ibid., 71.
Ibid., 73.
Ibid., 74. Despite Wade’s presentation of this hike as happening a day after the party, it might actually be
the case that it happened in a subsequent visit by Foucault, as explained below.
Ibid., 80.
Ibid., 89.
Ibid., 129.
Foucault Studies, No. 28, 142-164. 149
politics of drug use, particularly in the relation that he saw between drugs, pleasure and
death. It is recorded that Foucault made recreational use of some drugs, which he himself
mentions in several interviews, and which is discussed in his biographies. This section
gives an account of some of these references and episodes from Foucault’s works and life
in order to situate the Death Valley story within his broader outlook on drugs.
In “Theatrum Philosophicum” a 1970 review of Gilles Deleuze’s Difference and
Repetition and The Logic of Sense in which Foucault famously proposed that “perhaps one
day, this century will be known as Deleuzian”
Foucault cryptically wrote:
We can easily see how LSD inverts the relationships of ill humor, stupidity, and thought:
it no sooner eliminates the supremacy of categories than it tears away the ground of its
indifference and disintegrates the gloomy dumbshow of stupidity […]. Opium produces
other effects: […] Opium ensures a weightless immobility, the stupor of a butterfly that
differs from catatonic rigidity […]. Drugs if we can speak of them generally have
nothing at all to do with truth and falsity; only to fortune-tellers do they reveal a world
“more truthful than the real.”
Jon Simons interprets this passage as implying that, for Foucault, “[d]rugs have the
potential to enable one to think in ways other than one’s habits of thought, by unifying
and differentiating experiences in unusual ways.”
There are ample other references to
drugs that Foucault makes throughout his life, particularly in late interviews.
In a 1983 interview, Foucault talks about the politics of contemporary life, particularly
what he sees as the “‘perverse effects’ of the social security system in France.”
He refers
to various spheres of life that have become ‘over-medicalized,’
such as education,
sexuality and imprisonment. For Foucault, this triumph of medicalization is supported by
the belief that its logic is key to dealing with problems in the most efficient and economical
way, even if these problems belong to other registers of life than medicine. He claims that
such concerns have posed “the question of what life is worth and the way in which one
can confront death,”
and the consequence of this is to establish a right to suicide, that is,
“a recognized right for everybody to kill himself when he wishes in decent conditions.”
It is in this context that Foucault proposes, with an unclear degree of seriousness, that: “If
I won a few billion francs in the national lottery, I’d set up an institute where people who
wanted to die could come and spend a weekend, a week or a month, enjoying themselves
as far as possible, perhaps with the help of drugs, and then disappear, as if by obliteration.”
Michel Foucault, “Theatrum Philosophicum,” in Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology: Essential Works of
Foucault 1954-1984 Volume 2, ed. James D. Faubion (1998), 343.
Foucault, “Theatrum Philosophicum,” 363. In a published note to this paragraph, the author of the books
being reviewed, Deleuze, writes: “What will people think of us?” Foucault, “Theatrum Philosophicum,”
Jon Simons, Foucault & the Political (1995), 96.
Michel Foucault, “Social Security,” in Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings, 1977-1984,
ed. Lawrence D. Kritzman (1990), 159.
Ibid., 175.
Ibid., 176.
Ibid., [emphasis added].
Foucault Studies, No. 28, 142-164. 150
In a 1979 short text on suicide, “The Simplest of Pleasures”, Foucault once again invokes
the idea of planning one’s death, this time imagining it as being accompanied by sex and
pleasure: “suicide festivals or orgies are just two of the possible methods”
of doing this,
he writes. He refers to Japanese places of anonymous sex as “places without maps or
and imagines such places, similar to the institute he imagined setting up if he
won the lottery, as places where one can go “with anonymous partners to look for an
opportunity to die free of all stereotypes. There you’d have an indeterminate amount of
time seconds, weeks, months perhaps until the moment presents itself with a
compelling clearness.”
Foucault also talks about the relation between suicide and drug use in a 1983 interview
with Charles Ruas on Death and the Labyrinth, Foucault’s 1963 book on Raymond Roussel.
What drew Foucault to Roussel’s avant-garde writings, among other reasons, was their
mutual interest with the finitude of language and the sovereignty of the subject. Foucault
would have also been interested in Roussel’s marginalised profile as a homosexual who
was also hospitalized in a mental asylum. One could also add that Roussel and Foucault
were united by their fascination with anonymity and death. Foucault’s reflections on
Roussel’s death echo his sentiments on the self-obliteration that may follow, perhaps
aided by drugs, through choosing one’s own death. Roussel died of a drug overdose;
whether this was accidental or planned (as Foucault seems to imply) is unclear. What is
clear is that, for Foucault, the manner of Roussel’s death is a meaningful one, particularly
in view of his manner of living. When asked about Roussel’s drug use, Foucault says that
this “is a subject which interests me greatly, but one which I’ve had to put aside the
study of the culture of drugs or drugs as culture in the West from the beginning of the
nineteenth century. No doubt it started much earlier, but it would come up to the present,
it’s so closely tied to the artistic life of the West.”
On various occasions, Foucault referred
to the culture of drug use as precisely that; a culture (or a counter or sub-culture), a form
of life, a style of existence. In another interview, Foucault speaks on how practices of drug
use can harbour a creative potential of “inventing new possibilities.”
For Foucault, this
invention also involves contesting the privileged role of sexual pleasure as the sole site of
bodily pleasure: “The idea that bodily pleasure should always come from sexual pleasure
is the root of all our possible pleasure. I think that’s something quite wrong.”
expresses his frustration at “the fact that the problem of drugs is always envisaged as a
problem of freedom and prohibition. I think that drugs must become a part of our
Michel Foucault, “The Simplest of Pleasures,” in Foucault Live: Collected Interviews, 1961-1984, ed. Sylvère
Lotringer (1996), 296.
Ibid., 297.
Michel Foucault, Death and the Labyrinth (2004), 185.
Michel Foucault, “Sex, Power and the Politics of Identity,” in Foucault Live: Collected Interviews, 1961-1984
(1996), 384.
Ibid., 384 [emphasis in original].
Foucault Studies, No. 28, 142-164. 151
He elaborates further on the idea of a culture of drug use and pleasure in this
We have to study drugs. We have to experience drugs. We have to do good drugs, which
can produce very intense pleasure. I think this puritanism about drugs, which implies
that you can either be for drugs or against drugs, is mistaken. Drugs have now become
a part of our culture. Just as there is bad music and good music, there are bad drugs and
good drugs.”
In a 1983 interview with Stephen Riggins,
Foucault again evokes the idea of a cultural
ethos, also in relation to drug use, pleasure and silence (perhaps as opposed to the non-
silence of confession
). Foucault refers to an encounter he had with the filmmaker Daniel
Schmidt with whom he developed a friendship that originated in silence. After
discovering that they had nothing to tell each other, Foucault says, “[w]e drank, we
smoked hash, we had dinner. And I don’t think we spoke more than twenty minutes
during those ten hours. From that moment a rather long friendship started.”
goes on to say that ‘our culture’ does not have a culture of silence in the same way that
“we don’t have a culture of suicide either.”
In this same interview, Foucault makes two
further references to drugs, one explicit and another less so. While speaking about his
difficulty in experiencing pleasure, Foucault draws a link between pleasure and death:
It’s not as simple as that (Laughs) to enjoy one’s self. And – I must say that’s my dream
I would like and I hope I’ll die of an overdose (Laughs) of pleasure of any kind.
Because I think it’s really difficult and I always have the feeling that I do not feel the
pleasure, the complete total pleasure and, for me, it’s related to death. […] Because I
think that the kind of pleasure I would consider as the real pleasure would be so deep,
so intense, so overwhelming that I couldn’t survive it. I would die.
Here, Foucault refers to an accident from his own life, once again linking pleasure with
death, and with drugs, despite not explicitly disclosing it in this anecdote.
further on his reference to a pleasure so deep that it kills, he recounts this episode:
Foucault, “Sex, Power and the Politics of Identity,” 384 [emphasis in original].
This interview is referred to with at least three different titles in the different collections in which it is
featured, these being Michel Foucault, “The Minimalist Self,” in Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and
Other Writings, 1977-1984, ed. Lawrence D. Kritzman (1990), 3-16; Michel Foucault, “An Ethics of Pleasure,”
in Foucault Live: Collected Interviews, 1961-1984, ed. Sylvère Lotringer (1996), 371-381; Michel Foucault, “An
Interview by Stephen Riggins,” in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth: The Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984
Volume 1, ed. Paul Rabinow (1997), 121-133.
For more on the references to silence in Foucault’s work, see Chloë Taylor, The Culture of Confession from
Augustine to Foucault: A Genealogy of the ‘Confessing Animal’ (2009), 193-197, and Johanna Oksala, Foucault on
Freedom (2005), 157-174.
Foucault, “An Ethics of Pleasure,” 371.
Ibid., 378 [emphasis in original].
For more on this point, see Sanjay K. Gautam, Foucault and the Kamasutra: The Courtesan, the Dandy, and the
Birth of Ars Erotica as Theater in India (2016), 20-49.
Foucault Studies, No. 28, 142-164. 152
I’ll give you a clearer and simpler example. Once I was struck by a car in the street. I
was walking. And for maybe two seconds I had the impression that I was dying and it
was really a very, very intense pleasure. The weather was wonderful. It was 7 o’clock
on a summer day. The sun was coming down. The sky was very wonderful and blue
and so on. It was, it still is now, one of my best memories. (Laughs).
According to Miller, what Foucault does not reveal in this interview is that before his
walk, Foucault “had been smoking opium.”
[James] Miller writes that D. A. Miller, a
professor of English at Berkeley with whom Foucault had spoken about this accident, told
him the following: “he’d been walking across the street outside of his Paris apartment. He
had been hit by a car. And he thought he was going to die. He compared it to a drug
experience: it was a euphoric, ecstatic moment. He had a sense that he was leaving his
body, that he was outside his own body.
In the interview, Foucault neglected the part
on him possibly being on drugs during this accident from July 1978,
and focused only
on the pleasure derived from this experience. However, in perhaps a moment of free
association’, immediately after his comment on this car accident, Foucault goes on: “There
is also the fact that some drugs are really important for me because they are the mediation
to those incredibly intense joys that I am looking for and that I am not able to experience,
to afford myself.” For Foucault, the triad of drugs-pleasure-death was tightly-knit in such a
way that the sense in which he spoke of drugs in relation to death echoes the manner in
which he spoke of sex in relation to death (for example, the suicide houses accompanied
by sex and/or drugs) which, in turn, echoes the way in which he links sex and drugs.
The close connection Foucault drew between sex and drugs can also be seen in his
widely-recorded fascination with the bathhouses in San Francisco. In a piece from Wade’s
memoir, a quotation which Miller had referred to in his biography, Foucault is asked
about the California gay scene by Wade and Stoneman, and says:
Yes, I have been to the baths. One night at the baths I met an attractive young man who
told me that he and many others go to the baths a few times a week, frequently under
the influence of uppers and amyl. Such a way of life is extraordinary to me,
unbelievable. These men live for casual sex and drugs. Incredible! There are no such
places in France.
Wade also recounts how Foucault compared their LSD experience with sex: “The only
thing I can compare this experience to in my life is sex with a stranger. Contact with a
strange body affords an experience of the Truth similar to what I am experiencing now.”
Foucault, “An Ethics of Pleasure,” 378.
Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault, 306. In his biography, Eribon too refers to this episode and writes:
“And Foucault told Paul Veyne that he was under the influence of opium when he was hit by a car in July
1978, on the Rue de Vaugirard in front of the building where he lived.” Eribon, Michel Foucault, 315.
Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault, 350.
Macey mentions this car accident but does not say anything on whether Foucault was high at this time.
What he writes is that “[t]he pleasure may have been intense, but Foucault spent the next year suffering from
bad headaches and bouts of nausea.” Macey, The Lives of Michel Foucault, 131.
Wade, Foucault in California, 42-43.
Ibid., 61.
Foucault Studies, No. 28, 142-164. 153
Much has been made of these anecdotes on Foucault, and in as much as he did not
particularly enjoy publicising his life, he did not shy away from openly speaking about
them. There is a sense in which it is tempting to trace a continuity between Foucault’s
works and his life. While Foucault’s own ideas can be used to argue against the view that
an author’s life functions as the key to interpret an author’s work, one could also fruitfully
turn to the spirit of Foucault’s later work to argue for an important ethico-political relation
between his life and his work. The next section turns to engage with this question, using
the Death Valley story as a case in point.
One way to react to Foucault’s California story is to treat it as an instance of prying into
the personal life of an individual. In fact, despite Miller’s protestations that he wanted to
read Foucault’s life in terms of his work, Miller’s biography of Foucault has often been
subjected to this critique. David M. Halperin, for example, famously denounces Miller’s
The Passion of Michel Foucault in this way:
[Miller’s] account of Foucault’s personal and intellectual evolution is not just
unFoucauldian. It is anti-Foucauldian. It purports to “explain” Foucault’s thought by
tracing its origin to the “truth” of his psychosexual being, thereby combining
authoritative historical/biographical knowledge with the power of normalizing
judgment in a single gesture whose effect is to strengthen the very disciplinary controls
that Foucault’s whole life was dedicated to resisting.
It is not an easy feat to write a biography of Foucault. In fact, the three main book-length
biographies of Foucault all reflect on this difficulty in similar terms, that is, by expressing
wariness on how tenable it is to write Foucault’s biography:
Consider, for example, the dilemma of trying to write a narrative account of someone
who questioned, repeatedly and systematically, the value of old-fashioned ideas about
the “author”; someone who raised the gravest of doubts about the character of personal
identity as such; someone who, as a matter of temperament, distrusted prying questions
and naked honesty.
Writing a biography of Michel Foucault may seem paradoxical. Did he not, on
numerous occasions, challenge the notion of the author, thereby dismissing the very
possibility of a biographical study?
David M. Halperin, Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography (1995), 145. A 1993 issue of the journal
Salmagundi dedicates a whole section to articles on Miller’s The Passion of Michel Foucault, and features articles
by Miller, Lynn Hunt, Alasdair Macintyre, Richard Rorty and David Halperin. See Salmagundi 97 (Winter
1993), 30-99. For more on the debate/polemic between Miller and Halperin, see Jonathan Tran, Foucault and
Theology (2011), 67-92.
Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault, 6.
Eribon, Michel Foucault, ix.
Foucault Studies, No. 28, 142-164. 154
Some posthumous subjects are less cooperative than others and Foucault, who shared
Nietzsche’s scorn for ‘all the learned dust of biography’, is rather more recalcitrant than
Shaw. Alive, he would have rejected the advances of any biographer; in death he still
struggles to escape them.
Such hesitance on the part of these biographers can be sympathised with, considering
Foucault’s famous assertions on the topic: “I am no doubt not the only one who writes in
order to have no face. Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same;”
“Anyway, my personal life is not at all interesting. […] As far as my personal life is
uninteresting, it is not worthwhile making a secret of it. (Laughs.) By the same token, it
may not be worthwhile publicizing it.”
These assertions, however, do not mean that
Foucault paid no regard to the relation between one’s personal life and one’s own thought;
on the contrary, as he writes, [e]ach of my works is a part of my own biography;”
haven’t written a single book that was not inspired, at least in part, by a direct personal
he also referred to his theoretical works as a few fragments of
The meaning of these statements emerges clearly, for example, in an
episode from Wade’s memoir. Reacting to Wade’s question on whether there was ever a
specific event that gave him crucial insight that determined his work, Foucault says:
“Yes!” he responded. “When I enrolled at the École normale the headmaster demanded
to learn if there was anything unusual about me. When I informed him of my
homosexuality, he replied with horrified expression that such behavior was not normal
and certainly unacceptable to the reputation of the school. He then had me confined, for
my own good, he said. He told me that I must be reformed, that I would be confined,
examined, and treated by an array of authorities doctors, teachers, psychologist,
psychiatrists, etc. At this instant I recognized in a flash how the system works. I
perceived the fundamental impulse of our society: normalization.”
This way in which Foucault connects his work with his life, however, contrasts with the
way in which Wade and, following him, Miller greatly emphasise the significance of a
statement Foucault is said to have uttered while high: ‘Tonight I have achieved a fresh
perspective on myself. I now understand my sexuality. It all seems to start with my
In his biography, Miller picks up on this point in an endnote and claims that
Wade’s inclusion of this phrase gives further credence to his memoir since even other
accounts had indicated that “Foucault was struck by something, apparently sexual, about
his relationship to his sister: both Bersani and Defert have also told me that a personal
Macey, The Lives of Michel Foucault, xi.
Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge (2002), 19.
Foucault, “An Ethics of Pleasure,” 381.
Michel Foucault, “Truth, Power, Self: An Interview with Michel Foucault,” in Technologies of the Self: A
Seminar with Michel Foucault, ed. Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman, and Patrick H. Hutton (1988), 11.
Foucault, “Interview with Michel Foucault,” 244.
Michel Foucault, “Practicing Criticism,” in Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings, 1977-
1984, ed. Lawrence D. Kritzman (1990), 156.
Wade, Foucault in California, 58-59 [emphasis in original].
Ibid., 61.
Foucault Studies, No. 28, 142-164. 155
revelation about his relation with his sister was crucial for Foucault.”
Miller goes on to
speculate, dubiously, on this episode and the impact of this ‘revelation’ on Foucault’s
subsequent work: “Circumstantial evidence […] suggests that the epiphany may have
involved a memory of incestuous fantasies, and the guilt that accompanied these
fantasies. Before his acid trip, the central focus of Foucault’s critical remarks on sexuality
had been the prohibitions surrounding masturbation; after it, the emphasis shifted to
the incest taboo.”
Moreover, in his biography, Eribon refers to an episode concerning
Foucault and his sister in childhood, and recounts how the young Foucault, a few months
shy of his fourth birthday, had to be prematurely admitted to Lycée Henri-IV (which his
sister attended) after his mother told the teacher that “he did not want to be separated
from his sister.”
Miller refers to this episode in the same footnote that contains his
speculations on Foucault’s feelings toward his sister, imposing an added layer of possible
While not much can be said on the meaning of Foucault’s utterance on his sister, one
can regard his supposed remark “I now understand my sexuality” – with scepticism in
light of his own critical views on the relation between sexuality and truth in The Will to
Knowledge and the later lectures, particularly on adopting a confessional and hermeneutic
attitude of decipherment toward one’s sexual self. Furthermore, as Foucault writes in his
introduction to the Herculine Barbin book: “Do we truly need a true sex?”
, suggesting
that an excessive concern with the truth of one’s sexuality is both unnecessary and
potentially dangerous. This point echoes Halperin’s contention with Miller’s approach to
Foucault’s biography. While Halperin criticises Eribon for reducing Foucault’s personal
life to silence, he chastises Miller for over-particularising and psychologising Foucault’s
If Eribon’s mistake is to reduce Foucault’s personal life to the merely private, neglecting
the connections between Foucault’s thought and his experiences of sexual, social, and
political subjection, Miller’s mistake is exactly symmetrical and opposite: it is to seek in
the details of Foucault’s childhood experiences, fantasy life, sexual preoccupations, and
artistic tastes the key to understanding his books, which Miller treats as a series of
encrypted autobiographies. What both approaches miss is the specifically political
character of Foucault’s evolving practices of personal life, of his ongoing struggle
against the modem “technologies of the subject” whose origins he traced and whose
operations he described in book after book.
Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault, 438n.1.
Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault, 438-439n.16. Stuart Elden contests this claim, writing “that this is at
best doubtful is confirmed by the Les Anormaux course, where both masturbation and incest are discussed as
part of a complementary analysis […] before Foucault ever set foot in California.” Stuart Elden, “The Problem
of Confession: The Productive Failure of Foucault’s History of Sexuality,” Journal for Cultural Research 9:1
(2005), 36.
Eribon, Michel Foucault, 6.
Michel Foucault, Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-Century French
Hermaphrodite (2013), vii [emphasis in original].
Halperin, Saint Foucault, 153 [emphasis in original]. For a review essay on Miller’s and Eribon’s biographies
of Foucault, see Jacques Lezra, “Foucault’s Perfection,” Contemporary Literature 35:3 (1994), 593-623. For a
Foucault Studies, No. 28, 142-164. 156
Foucault in California presents us with the opportunity to think and re-think the relation
between Foucault’s life and Foucault’s work. While both his life and his work have been
the object of so many studies, the inter-relation between the two between his logos and
bios remains a difficult but radiant terrain to be treaded cautiously.
Ultimately, as
Miller himself confesses, “given the lack of further details, nothing much can be said with
any confidence about this aspect of Foucault’s epiphany, which must therefore remain an
Before considering the importance of this story in relation to the trajectory of Foucault’s
work post-1975, there is a further point to be clarified about the dates of this California
story, as presented in Wade’s memoir. There is a hint of the date of this encounter, though
Wade’s account is misleading in this regard. Wade recalls telling Foucault: “We will spend
Memorial Day weekend in Death Valley.”
Indeed, the whole Foucault in California
episode is presented as happening during the Memorial Day weekend, including in the
blurb on the back cover of the book. However, this seems to be incorrect. Memorial Day
in 1975 fell on Monday 26 May yet, in her foreword, Dundas quotes a letter from Foucault
to Wade dated Wednesday 14 May 1975, in which Foucault referred to the Death Valley
weekend as “a great experience, one of the most important in my life.”
Thus, it cannot
be the case that, in the 14 May letter, Foucault could have referred to the Death Valley trip
which, according to Wade, happened later in the Memorial Day weekend. It turns out that
the Memorial Day visit was in fact a separate visit. Foucault visited Wade twice in May
1975: the first visit, in which the Death Valley trip happened, was in the weekend of 10 to
11 May 1975, while the second visit was two weeks later during the Memorial Day
A letter from Foucault to Wade, dated 30 May 1975, seems to indicate that by
this time Foucault was back in Paris. Therefore, the ‘Memorial Day weekend’ framing to
review essay on Miller’s, Eribon’s and Macey’s biographies of Foucault, see Luther H. Martin, “The discourse
of (Michel Foucault’s) life: A review essay,” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 7:1 (1995), 57-69.
Paul Veyne is one scholar who presents an interesting biographical account of Foucault read in relation to
his ethos. See Paul Veyne, “The Final Foucault and His Ethics,” Critical Inquiry 20:1 (1993), 1-9, and Paul
Veyne, Foucault: His Thought, His Character (2010).
Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault, 439n.16.
Wade, Foucault in California, 15.
Dundas, “Foreword,” xvi. For further information on the Foucault-Wade letters, see James Penner,
“Blowing the Philosopher’s Fuses: Michel Foucault’s LSD Trip in the Valley of Death,” Los Angeles Review of
Books, June 17, 2019, and Andrew Marzoni, “Foucault in the Valley of Death,” The Baffler 46 (July 2019).
In an interview with Wade conducted by Dundas in May 2017 and published in the online magazine Boom
California in September 2017, Wade does indicate despite the unclear phrasing that there were two visits
by Foucault within the space of two weeks in 1975: “Foucault visited us again. Shortly after his second visit,
which was two weeks after this, where we stayed up in the mountains […]. After he left the second time, I
sat down and wrote an account of the experience, called Death Valley Trip.” Simeon Wade and Heather
Dundas, “Michel Foucault in Death Valley: A Boom interview with Simeon Wade,” Boom California,
September 10, 2017.
Foucault Studies, No. 28, 142-164. 157
the whole ‘Death Valley trip’ story is not fully accurate and is somewhat misleading.
Other instances show that Wade was not particularly accurate when it came to dates.
Besides Wade’s repeated claims in Foucault in California that the Death Valley trip
happened in the Memorial Day weekend (and not in a previous visit), in a 2017 interview
which unearthed some photographs from the Death Valley trip, Wade and the interviewer
(Dundas) erroneously refer to the Death Valley trip as happening in June (rather than
May) 1975.
Wade is also mistaken in the dates he gives in Chez Foucault, a 1978 Foucault ‘fanzine’
that he edited in 1978, containing information on Foucault’s life, works and ideas, as well
as sporadic quotations given without a context.
These same quotations, in fact, turn out
to be pieces of dialogue from Foucault in California. In the fanzine, these quotations are
erroneously dated “May, 1976” (instead of 1975), as is a transcription of a “Dialogue on
Power” which Foucault had with a group of students. This dialogue on power happened
in the Founders Room at Claremont, most probably during the first visit to Wade right
after the Death Valley trip. In Foucault in California, this dialogue is presented at the very
end of the California trip, suggesting that it occurred after the Bear Canyon mountain trip.
However, in an interview, Wade suggests that the mountain visit happened during
Foucault’s second visit.
In the memoir, Wade describes around four consecutive days,
and this indicates that he possibly peppered the narrative of Foucault in California with
details from both California trips, especially since he wrote the memoir after the second
visit. This adds to the difficulty of establishing the precise timeline of what exactly
happened and when in the May 1975 visits.
Matters of dates aside, there are also points to be made with regard to how
instrumental Wade presents the Death Valley experience to the eventual trajectory of
Foucault’s work. As a narrator, Wade reveals how he was very self-conscious (“I was
being a chatterbox”) and full of curiosity and fascination (“There was so much I wanted
to know from him and about him;” “Do you remember your dreams, Michel?”)
Foucault’s presence. Wade often describes how Foucault reacted in response to his
behaviour. For example, when Wade promises to remain silent for a while, Foucault
“appeared visibly relieved;”
or when Wade writes that upon telling Foucault that “there
are so many of us here who love you. You must sense that we are so grateful for your
work and the enlightenment you have brought to us,”
Foucault “was taken aback and
Thanks to Heather Dundas, Stuart Elden and Andrew Marzoni for their clarifications on this matter.
Chez Foucault can be accessed here.
“Foucault visited us again. Shortly after his second visit, which was two weeks after this, where we stayed
up in the mountains it was a mountain experience.” Wade and Dundas, “Michel Foucault in Death Valley:
A Boom interview with Simeon Wade.” The second visit is alluded to in the last chapter of Foucault in
California when, in the airport, Wade describes Foucault saying, “Instead of stopping off in New York on my
way back to Paris, I could come here for two days. I would like to spend time with David in the mountains.”
Wade, Foucault in California, 126.
Wade, Foucault in California, 39.
Ibid., 95.
Foucault Studies, No. 28, 142-164. 158
looked at me in disbelief. But he thanked me modestly.”
In various episodes, Wade
comes across as swaying towards the confessional by wanting to know everything on
Foucault, on what he thought, how he lived and conducted himself. To an extent, this
might explain why Wade made so much of every piece of information that Foucault
revealed about himself and perhaps read a bit too much into the significance of this
encounter. While it seems undoubtable that Foucault cherished Wade’s friendship, the
latter seemed to also relish in the brush with fame and glory brought about by his
interaction with the former. For example, when Foucault remarks, somewhat teasingly,
that the club in which Wade and Stoneman met will be very famous, Wade muses “[i]f
only because we have tripped with Michel Foucault,” or when Foucault asked whether
he should tell others about the trip, Wade replied, “I would hope so,”
suggesting that
the plan to persuade Foucault to consume LSD with them was part of Wade’s wish to
create a lasting association with Foucault.
Contesting Wade’s desire for ‘grandeur by association’ is, however, less important than
correcting certain misconceptions on how significant this California episode in itself was
in influencing the direction of Foucault’s later work. Wade presents the Death Valley trip
as singularly important in determining Foucault’s eventual plans for The History of
As it turned out, my formula might be considered something of a delusion of grandeur.
The Death Valley trip did not change the world, but it transformed Michel Foucault,
who said it was the greatest experience of his life. When he got back to Paris, he wrote
to Mike and me that he had to begin anew. The Death Valley trip had changed him
completely. He stated that upon his return he threw the completed second volume of
The History of Sexuality into the fire and eradicated the entire prospectus of books he had
meant to publish in the projected seven-volume series. He planned to start over.
The results of that new beginning can be seen in the last three volumes of The History of
Sexuality, which were written after the Death Valley trip. They crown his body of work
like the Ethics caps the corpus of Aristotle. Foucault’s final message to us is the supreme
value of the “aesthetics of existence.” He teaches us to elude the ruinous codes of the
Disciplined Society and to make our lives into works of art.
I believe the Death Valley trip was instrumental in making Foucault’s Ethics possible, as
well as determining its substance.
Firstly, it is true that Foucault spoke fondly with friends of the LSD experience he shared
with Wade and Stoneman, and it is not being doubted that the event did happen and that
it was a pleasant one for Foucault. It is also true that Foucault scrapped his original plan
for The History of Sexuality. However, various replies can be given to Wade’s supposition.
It is less true, if not outright untrue, that the California trip was a decisive influence on
Wade, Foucault in California, 66.
Ibid., 9-10. The original plan was that The History of Sexuality would be a six-volume series and not, as
Wade claims, seven.
Foucault Studies, No. 28, 142-164. 159
Foucault’s work. As reported by Wade himself, when he asked Foucault on the part of the
trip that he enjoyed the most, Foucault mentioned the Taoist commune: “I asked him what
he had enjoyed most since we returned from our trip through the looking glass. ‘The
morning in the mountains,’ he answered. ‘I loved the hike with the young men in Bear
Moreover, Wade reproduces this dialogue which, according to him,
happened at the peak of their drug experience in which Foucault remarks that the effect
of the acid trip on him was more experiential rather than conceptual:
“Do you think this event will affect your work?” I asked.
“Definitely,” he replied.
“Have you had any philosophical insights tonight?” I inquired.
“Not really. I have not spent these hours reflecting on concepts. It has not been a
philosophical experience for me, but something else entirely.”
Macey, moreover, sheds doubt on how seriously the whole California story in general
should be taken, let alone speculation on how instrumental it was for shifting the direction
of Foucault’s work: “Reports from those who claim that he told them that it changed his
life should probably be treated with some scepticism; the insights granted by LSD tend to
be short-lived and illusory rather than real.”
There is one further reply and it is the strongest one that can be presented in
response to Wade’s account of the importance of this story. In an interview, Wade claims
that it is thanks to the Death Valley trip that Foucault became illuminated of the
importance of, for example, Jeremy Bentham in modern politics. As Stuart Elden clarifies,
this statement is manifestly wrong since Surveiller et punir, in which Foucault discusses
Bentham at length, was published in February 1975, three months before Foucault’s
California visit.
Furthermore, as Elden has shown, various reasons for Foucault’s
change in research direction following the publication of the first volume of The History of
Sexuality have been proposed, with these explanations having different degrees of
plausibility. Some point to Foucault’s disappointment with the lukewarm reception of the
first volume; others refer to his dissatisfaction with life in Paris, the teaching format at the
Collège de France, and contractual issues with Gallimard; another reason for his emphasis
on early Christianity in the late 1970s and early 1980s is said to be his migration from the
Bibliothèque Nationale to the Bibliothèque du Saulchoir at the Dominicans.
proposal, based on his reading of Wade’s memoir, that it was the California episode that
prompted Foucault’s research shift is doubted by Elden, who writes that:
Wade, Foucault in California, 125.
Ibid., 62.
Macey, The Lives of Michel Foucault, 339.
See Simeon Wade and Heather Dundas, “Michel Foucault in Death Valley: A Boom interview with Simeon
See Elden, “The Problem of Confession,” 35.
Foucault Studies, No. 28, 142-164. 160
[T]he dates are all wrong. Foucault finished the manuscript of La Volonté de savoir in
August 1976, some 15 months after the acid trip in Death Valley. In that time he had
given the lectures that comprise «Il faut défendre la société», which deal extensively with
issues to be treated in the originally proposed Volume VI. As Miller himself notes, it is
in the spring of 1978 when Foucault returned to the Collège de France after his sabbatical
that the real problems start to be apparent.
If anything, contrary to Wade’s supposition, in 1978 Foucault turned not to a
consideration of the aesthetics of existence, but to the study of governmentality. It is later,
that is, when drafting Les Aveux de la chair, that Foucault was compelled to further study
classical antiquity since he was unhappy with this material which featured as an
introduction to this volume on Christianity. Of course, this material eventually became
the second and third volumes of The History of Sexuality. This explanation, presented by
Elden in painstaking detail, is a far more complex and accurate one than the lightning bolt
of inspiration that Wade presumes Foucault experienced in the Death Valley.
Reflections on Foucault’s life have resulted in reactions that span an entire spectrum
from worried critics who decry that “[t]o take Foucault seriously is to learn what kind of
fire scholars play with when following him to critique and recommend changes in
to sympathetic readers who feel that “[a]s far as I’m concerned, the guy was
a fucking saint.”
To arrive at such judgements, readers refer to the same information:
Foucault’s personal, philosophical and political outlooks. The publication of Wade’s
Foucault in California crystallises similarly eclectic reactions, ranging from outrage at his
irresponsibility and unexemplary character to supporters who admire the link between
Foucault’s intellectual prowess and his experimental way of life.
This essay positions itself cautiously. On the one hand, it does not give too much
weight to speculations on what Foucault’s California story really meant for him and sheds
serious doubt on the instrumentality of this singular event in shifting Foucault’s research.
On the other hand, I believe that it is not incorrect to read into aspects of Foucault’s
personal life, and this is also inspired by Foucault’s own remarks on the relation between
his work and his life. My concern is with how this is done, insofar as it must avoid over-
psychologising or romanticising Foucault’s life. As he said in an interview, “[t]hose things
that matter to me in a personal way, or which are important to me just as they are, I don’t
feel any inclination to analyse.
We readers would do well to keep in mind Foucault’s
views on identity, confession and hermeneutics of the self when attempting such
interpretations. We would also do well to be wary of how over-enthusiastic uses of
For a detailed exposition and analysis of the shifts in Foucault’s plans for The History of Sexuality, see Stuart
Elden, Foucault’s Last Decade (2016).
Steven A. Gelb, “‘Be Cruel!’ Dare We Take Foucault Seriously?,” Mental Retardation 38:4 (2000), 369-372.
Halperin, Saint Foucault, 6.
Foucault, Death and the Labyrinth, 184.
Foucault Studies, No. 28, 142-164. 161
philosophers’ lives can function to consolidate cults of personality and academic
superstardom, whereby philosophers’ lives are reduced to commodities devoid of their
potential critical power. If there is something to be cherished in the portrayal of Foucault
in Foucault in California, assuming Wade’s account is anything to go by, it is his ethos.
Wade presents various episodes which colour Foucault’s ethos as an academic and
intellectual: his intellectual generosity and his generosity of spirit; the way in which he
responds fully and openly to questions irrespective of who is asking; his words of
encouragement on academic and life matters to students; his avoidance of limelight; his
shyness and humility. While Foucault was a ‘dandy flaneur’, ample episodes described in
Foucault in California and beyond show how he deeply felt and embodied the
responsibility that comes with being a critical intellectual.
Foucault’s LSD story must be read in various contexts: in relation to his outlook on sex
and pleasure; in light of his views on friendship; in view of his comments on drugs in
interviews and other sources; in connection with his ideas on aesthetics of existence, self-
fashioning and the politics of our selves. The drug use in the California story, trivial as
some may take it to be, can be read as a practice of the self on Foucault’s part. Such a
practice can also be seen as congruent with his understanding of philosophy as askesis
that does not aim at self-renunciation but instead is an experience of self-transformation,
aesthetics of existence, and spirituality, by which he meant “the subject’s attainment of a
certain mode of being and the transformations that the subject must carry out on itself to
attain this mode of being.”
Finally, Foucault’s California trip can be seen to also possess
traces of parrhesia. In his final lectures, Foucault characterised Socratic parrhesia as
manifesting symphony of discourse and action; the harmony between logos and bios.
Parrhesia as an ethical notion is a question of the way one lives it is an attitude, an ethos,
the style of one’s living. In other words, parrhesia is the care of the self that manifests the
relationship between one’s words and deeds whereby one’s free speech is authenticated
by one’s mode of living. Quoting Seneca, Foucault speaks of the practice of Stoic parrhesia
in similar terms, whereby that which is said must be complemented with the way in which
one conducts oneself: “This is the essential point […]: let us say what we think and think
what we say; let speech harmonize with conduct.”
This attitude of parrhesia, which
links the ethical with the political, is symptomatic of parrhesia, and marks the manner in
which Foucault carried himself as a philosopher, teacher, public intellectual and friend. It
is this attitude which shines forth in this exchange between Wade and Foucault on the
links between ethics and politics, between the personal and the political; and it is this
attitude which should take centre stage in the story described in Foucault in California:
“I do not conceal my personal life or convictions from my students, and I make every
attempt to connect my life with my teaching.”
Michel Foucault, “The Ethics of the Concern for Self as a Practice of Freedom,” in Ethics: Subjectivity and
Truth: The Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984 Volume 1, ed. Paul Rabinow (1997), 294. On the topic of
spirituality, particularly political spirituality, in Foucault’s work, see Ladelle McWhorter, “Foucault’s
Political Spirituality,” Philosophy Today 47, supplement (2003), 39-44.
Michel Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the Collège De France 1981-1982 (2005), 406.
Foucault Studies, No. 28, 142-164. 162
“Yes,” Foucault responded, “it is the only way.”
“I would call it Greek,” I said.
“Yes,” he said, “it is Greek.”
Defert, Daniel, “Chronology,” in A Companion to Foucault, ed. Christopher Falzon, Timothy
OLeary, Jana Sawicki, 11-83. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.
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Philosopher Drops Acid in the Valley of Death], vii-xviii. California: Heyday, 2019.
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Wade, Foucault in California, 125-126.
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Author Info
Kurt Borg
University of Malta
Kurt Borg completed a PhD in Philosophy at Staffordshire University, with a thesis on the
ethics and politics of narrating trauma in institutional contexts, drawing particularly on
the work of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler. He obtained a BA and MA in Philosophy
from the University of Malta, the latter with a dissertation on the relation between
Foucault’s work on power and ethics. He lectures at the University of Malta on Foucault,
ethics, medical sociology and philosophy of disability. He published articles and book
chapters on Foucault, Butler, trauma theory, and disability studies. An interview he co-
conducted with Judith Butler was published in CounterText (2017).
Drawing on the work of Foucault and Western confessional writings, this book challenges the transhistorical and commonsense views of confession as an innate impulse resulting in the psychological liberation of the confessing subject. Instead, confessional desire is argued to be contingent and constraining, and alternatives to confessional subjectivity are explored.
philosophers. It chronicles every stage of Foucault's personal and professional odyssey, from his early interest in dreams to his final preoccupation with sexuality and the nature of personal identity.