'Saint = Foucault': the latest alias for anarchy

June 18, 1995|By Donald Lyons | Donald Lyons,Special to The Sun

"Saint = Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography," by David M. Halperin. 246 pages. New York: Oxford University Press. $23 This little book is a quick sniper volley from within the fortress of academe. If you're a latecomer to this literary Bosnia, it may be hard to figure out the whys and wherefores of the conflict, but its savage intensity is unmistakable.

David M. Halperin, professor of literature at MIT and founding editor of GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, is distressed by what he sees as unfair attacks upon French sociologist Michel Foucault, who died of AIDS in 1984.

Mr. Halperin has little to say here about Foucault's actual books; rather, he wields a dense vocabulary of academic jargon to vindicate the politics and sexual practices of the Frenchman he worshipfully dubs "not only our [sic] Marx but also our Freud."

Foucault, it seems, was an unwitting pioneer of "queer theory." Now "queer" is not synonymous with "gay:" "queer is. . . whatever is at odds with normal, the legitimate, the dominant. . . .it could include some married couples without children, for example, or even (who knows?) some married couples with children - with, perhaps, very naughty children."

Cutting through Mr. Halperin's murk and whimsy, we see that queer is the latest alias of anarchy. It is a stance of opposition to power. And, since Foucault famously reduced everything to power (the dictum "power is everywhere" is his), Foucault was a prophet of "queer." QED. But Mr. Halperin is really less concerned with defining than with defending Foucault - and defending him against liberals.

Like the extremists of the 1930s and the 1960s, Mr. Halperin saves his keenest loathing not for the right but for "traditionalist liberals," for those "traditional liberal, humanist notions of truth, freedom, and rationality" that, for him, mask "a new kind of terror."

And what has excited this hysterical aversion to the tolerance liberals are so eager to bestow? Well, it seems liberal biographers of Foucault and liberal reviewers of those liberal biographies have expressed shock and revulsion at Foucault's devotion to sadomasochism.

Upset at any criticism of his idol, Mr. Halperin not only savages the critics, but constructs a theory of sadomasochism - and especially, it must be noted, truly bizarre and painful bodily infliction - as a "utopian political practice" designed to "disrupt normative sexual identities" and recalling the ascetic practices of Greek philosophers. Mr. Halperin also defends Foucault's notorious advocacy of Maoist popular massacres as modes of revolutionary justice.

Anarchy has come down in the world. In the 19th century, anarchists like Bakunin may have savored the necessity of violence and unpleasantness as a means toward the construction of a utopia, but there was at least a comprehensible moral utopia at the other side of the gorge. Now we have the worst of all theoretical worlds: the methods of Bakunin and the goals (I'll avoid the word "ends") of deSade.

That Oxford University Press should have seen fit to issue this ill-written, indigestible and repugnant polemic is grotesque. Being published by the ancient presses is, as Lady Bracknell said in another context, "nowadays no guarantee of respectability."

* Donald Lyons, author of "Independent Visions: A Critical Introduction to Recent Independent American Film," is the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal. He contributes to major magazines and journals and has taught at Harvard, New York University and Rutgers.

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