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Book Review: Becoming Foucault

Book review of Michael C. Behrent’s Becoming Foucault: The Poitiers Years (2023)

Published onMay 23, 2024
Book Review: Becoming Foucault

Becoming Foucault: The Poitiers Years, by Michael C. Behrent (2023). Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Decades after his death, the work of French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault remains canonical – even if his bold, yet heterodox disciplinary approaches still elicit controversy. Not only do his books continue to be widely read and frequently referenced, but his life also has become a subject of popular and scholarly intrigue. Historian Michael C. Behrent’s new book Becoming Foucault delves into Foucault’s formative childhood years in the provincial French city of Poitiers – exploring how his rarely addressed early experiences would influence his later work, thus challenging the commonly held perception that his intellectual development occurred solely within the elite intellectual milieux of Paris. Behrent’s approach in this book offers a nuanced understanding of Foucault’s philosophical trajectory and intellectual formation, identifying the experiences that would come to form the “raw material” of his oeuvre. This is not a conventional biography, but rather a thick inquiry that blends biography with intellectual history and reflections on the Poitiers of Foucault’s youth.

Overall, the book examines four broad “experiential matrices” divided into four chapters, which detail the associated patterns of thought from Foucault’s upbringing that would go on to shape his later worldview. Behrent bases his analysis on an extensive compilation of historical accounts, contemporary sources, archival materials, and a mix of biographical details from Foucault’s writing and interviews. Despite the occasional reliance on speculative connections, Behrent’s nuanced narrative nonetheless enriches our comprehension of Foucault’s work.

The introduction will captivate readers instantly as Behrent brings to life Foucault’s 1984 funeral procession in Poitiers, the provincial city where he was born and raised. This opening highlights the tension between Foucault’s provincial bourgeois origins and his later life as a world-famous historian and philosopher. According to Behrent, to understand Foucault, his early biography matters because he himself is a “philosopher of experience.” To reflect on the childhood experiences that shaped him is to grasp something crucial about what would become his distinctive philosophical style. In this regard, “experience” is not simply a historical vantage point from which Foucault’s life and thought can be analyzed; it is also a Foucauldian concept that he employed throughout his work and that mattered greatly to him.

Chapter 1, “Doctors,” begins with Foucault’s statement from a 1968 interview dealing with his literary style: “I am the son of a surgeon.” It examines the formative impact that Foucault’s conservative medical family had on his philosophical work – in particular, the way he “diagnosed” discourse and ideas, with an attendant focus on the themes of silence, language, and power. The chapter interrogates the conservative and rationalistic manner of Foucault’s father, a provincial doctor, and his devaluation of speech in favor of clinical precision. Foucault’s now-famous historiographic methods, which resemble an “intellectual autopsy,” should be seen as an implicit critique of his father’s medical legacy in how they show institutional knowledge as exerting social control. This background formed the basis of Foucault’s critical examinations into how medical discourses silence “mad” and disorderly individuals, as articulated in Madness and Civilization (1961), and it also shaped his broader career-long project of liberating marginalized voices.

Chapter 2 revolves around Foucault’s familial and intimate relationships – as denoted by its title “Intensities,” a word that he frequently used to characterize his close personal connections. Behrent delves into Foucault’s upbringing in a professional bourgeois milieu, highlighting how his family life oscillated between social privileges and superficial political obligations. He goes on to contrast this upbringing with Foucault’s later, more meaningful intellectual relationships that were marked by intense and emotional commitments. This dichotomy informs Foucault’s later critiques of bourgeois values in shaping familial sexual norms and societal power structures, famously seen in texts such as The History of Sexuality, Vol. I (1976). The term “bourgeois” was important to Foucault both as a category of self-description and as a concept of historical and philosophical analysis. His upbringing exposed him to the complexities of socio-economic class and molded his understanding of the bourgeoisie’s historical rise and the internalization of its values by the proletariat.

Chapter 3, “War,” details Foucault’s experience of World War II and the German occupation of France, drawing connections between the local impacts of war and broader European political dynamics. Behrent notes that curiously, very little attention has been devoted to Foucault-the-great-philosopher-of-power’s first-hand experience with a totalitarian regime. The constant threat of death during wartime instilled in him a lifelong preoccupation with mortality and its implications for human existence and knowledge. While Foucault’s interest in death most likely preceded the Allies’ bombing of Poitiers, the war years crystallized this obsession. His later sense of political and social “fascism,” thus, had historical and personal overlap; it became a direct threat to his freedom, one that had to be directly and deliberately resisted. It also shaped his later philosophical explorations of resistance within power dynamics and the influence of political forces on family structures.           

Chapter 4, “Philosophy,” looks into young Foucault’s education during World War II, including the earliest discernable elements of his formal philosophical training. It explores a layer of Foucault’s thought in which “experience” and self-conscious thinking are intertwined. During his schooling in Poitiers, he encountered the tensions between secular and Christian thought and was introduced to key philosophical concepts and thinkers such as Kant. This chapter underscores the significance of Foucault’s early years in shaping his overall intellectual formation, highlighting the interplay between personal experience and intellectual development.

In a final section, entitled “A Note on Biography,” Behrent attempts to contextualize his book within the broader landscape of Foucault scholarship, paying particular attention to the well-known Foucault biographies by Didier Eribon, David Macey, and James Miller. Behrent concludes that his aim was to expand on the more measured perspectives of these three other works, by showing how Foucault’s youth illuminates the genesis of his philosophical ideas and unique ways of thinking.

Even though the book undoubtedly contributes to the renewal of Foucault studies, it also has certain limitations. The author’s definition of “young” and “mature” Foucault remains vague, along with speculations as to the significance of early experiences in shaping Foucault as an eventual world-renowned historian and philosopher. While such discrepancies are later addressed within the text, they nonetheless contribute to a sense of ambiguity for readers navigating Behrent’s interpretative framework. Nevertheless, the author does not suggest a deterministic reading of Foucault’s trajectory – in which his childhood years rigidly prefigure his later work – but rather a careful one to explore the bases of his thought’s complex lines of argumentation and analysis.

Despite some polemical interpretations and the absence of autobiographical material from Foucault himself, Becoming Foucault does amount to a valuable lens for scholars and enthusiasts alike to examine the origins of one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century. This book is also a pivotal contribution to the anthropology of work, exploring how personal experiences and socio-historical contexts can shape a career of intellectual labor. By examining Foucault’s formative years, Behrent situates the philosopher’s later theoretical constructs within the everyday realities and power dynamics that he encountered as a young person, thus underlining the significance of biographical and contextual influences in the development of a scholar.

Author Biography:

Tanya Goyal is a social-science researcher based in the Centre for the Study of Social Systems at Jawaharlal Nehru University, India. She is also an Editor at H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. Her current research explores the relationship between gender, public health, and the environment.

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