Book cover provided by Harvard University Press
This interview appeared in Spanish in La Tercera, a daily newspaper published in Santiago, Chile. It was prompted by the claims recently made by Guy Sorman on French television and in The Sunday Times that (as the Times’ headline puts it) “FRENCH PHILOSOPHER MICHEL FOUCAULT ‘ABUSED BOYS IN TUNISIA’.”
Andrés Gómez Bravo: First of all, I would like to know what you think of the accusations that Guy Sorman has made about Michel Foucault. Do they surprise you?
James Miller: The claims made by Guy Sorman on a late-night French television program and in his interview with the Sunday Times do not surprise me. Though of course I have no way of knowing if what he says is true or not, I find him a credible witness. When I wrote my book, I did not have specific information about Foucault paying Arab boys for sex at night in a cemetery in Tunisia.
AGB: Given the intellectual stature of Foucault, is it possible that French intellectuals have tried to minimize these accusations?
JM: I know from personal experience that the Parisian intellectual elite knows how to circle its wagons, and try to ignore information that it finds unpleasant. It remains to be seen if that will happen in this case. So far, the silence has been deafening (and here in America, too).
AGB: Should we consider Foucault’s support for the decriminalization of sex with minors in light of the accusations?
JM: I made a point in my book of stressing Foucault’s defense of older men having sex with much younger boys. He was open and explicit about this, quite independently of joining other intellectuals in signing the 1977 open letter of support for the decriminalization of sex with minors in France.
AGB: Foucault’s life and texts “are closely intertwined in a mutually illuminating way,” you wrote in your book. Does the possible sexual abuse of children cast any new light or shadow on Foucault’s work?
JM: Honestly, I don’t think that what Guy Sorman has said radically alters our overall picture of Foucault’s life and work, even if it turns out to be true.
Sorman claims (and this seems likely to me) that Foucault never considered the question of “consent” in his dealings with Arab boys in Tunisia. (That he had such dealings has been confirmed by a recent report published in Jeune Afrique.)
But in later interviews and interactions with friends, Foucault explicitly argued that boys, even preadolescent boys, are old enough to exercise their own sexuality freely. That is why he thought the legal age of consent should be dramatically lowered.
One may disagree with Foucault on this point, but it’s not like he kept his predilections or his reasoning a secret.
By the way, I don’t think that Sorman has any way of knowing, as he claims in his Sunday Times interview, whether Foucault only had sex with boys in Tunisia, as opposed to having sex with boys as well in France or the United States.
On the other hand, Sorman I think is right about the “colonialist” aspect of his conduct, as Foucault clearly was following in the footsteps of Andre Gide and others, including Oscar Wilde (who procured an Arab boy for the young Gide in Algiers in 1895).
Edward Said once told me that he felt very uncomfortable about this period in Foucault’s life, since in some ways Foucault’s personal and political conduct in Tunisia seemed to him to embody a classically “Orientalist” outlook on the Arab “Other.”
AGB: Is it possible that Foucault developed his theories on sexuality to justify his behavior? Or that Foucault’s ideas were born out of his sexual preferences?
JM: My own book argues that virtually everything that Foucault wrote was part of an effort to understand who he was, and who he might yet become, in part through an inquiry into “limit experience,” undertaken both in theory and in practice. As the literary scholar Leo Bersani, who knew Foucault at Berkeley, remarked to me, “the life of his body was important to the life of his mind.”
Foucault had always to wonder: should he consider himself, as others in the past would have, and some today still would, as mad, abnormal, a criminal, and a pervert? Such questions I think were at the root of his most important philosophical and historiographic inquiries.
AGB: Does this information about abusive behavior with minors morally discredit Foucault’s work? Could we still consider him a maître à penser?
JM: I agree with something that Guy Sorman himself said in his interview with the Sunday Times: “I have great admiration for his work, and I’m not inviting anyone to burn his books, but simply to understand the truth about him.”
AGB: In general, does the intellectual stature of an author change their relationship to moral values?
JM: I believe that human beings who are extraordinarily privileged, because of great wealth, or great fame because of great accomplishments, often find themselves able to flout the conventional rules about what is right and wrong with comparative impunity. Foucault was always testing limits. As he became more famous, it became a bit easier for him to test limits ever more freely.
AGB: Foucault was clearly not the only one who tolerated sexual relations with minors. The 1977 letter in favor of modifying the consent law and decriminalizing consensual sexual relations with persons under 15 years of age was signed by numerous intellectuals, including Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Gilles Deleuze, among others. Today that position is untenable: did it correspond to the cultural context of the French intelligentsia or to the morality of the time?
JM: I do not agree with you that the position the French intellectuals took in 1977 was “untenable.” They were trying to provoke a debate. And even today, I believe this is a debate worth having. After all, there are a number of countries around the world where the age of sexual consent is currently below 15. In the Philippines and Angola, it is 12; it is 13 in Burkina Faso, Comoros, Niger, and Japan.
But it’s also true that the open letter of 1977 reflects a moment in human history when many of us, inspired in part by authors like Foucault (and also Freud and Marcuse) had come to believe that modern societies suffered from a needless surplus of guilt and shame, much of it aimed at regulating sexual desire. One motto of May ‘68 was “It is forbidden to forbid.”
My generation’s glorification of excess and transgression was sometimes self-destructive, and it sometimes facilitated egregious new forms of domination (as Foucault himself came to understand, and write about, in his later work on “care of the self”).
At the same time, Foucault was a crucial part of a larger intellectual moment and milieu, one that also powerfully inspired new movements of liberation – notably for gays, but also for women.
For Foucault, sexuality was a locus of active experimentation, one in which he didn’t know in advance where to draw a line. “Draw the line, says the accountant: but one can in fact draw it anywhere.” I am quoting Gilles Deleuze here – but Foucault shared those sentiments. He was as fearless – and sometimes reckless – in his conduct as he was in his philosophizing.
AGB: Last year, the Gabriel Matzneff case shocked France and raised the question of what to do with the work of morally questionable authors. In your opinion, what is the challenge that these authors pose to our society?
JM: Foucault directly challenges where a civilization chooses to draw the line between reason and madness, between the normal and abnormal, between good and evil. That challenge is at the heart of his work; it is what makes Foucault a truly radical thinker. His lifework remains deeply disquieting – as he meant it to be.
James Miller is the author of The Passion of Michel Foucault, now in its second Spanish edition (La Pasión de Michel Foucault)
Andrés Gómez Bravo is the cultural editor of La Tecera.