An unlikely intellectual convergence | City newspaper


VShistopher Lasch and Michel Foucault are rarely read side by side. However, the two thinkers praise each other’s work, recognizing that they are involved in a common project. Both assessed, on the one hand, how the elites use networks of expertise and moral ‘liberation’ injunctions to strengthen their dominance – and, on the other hand, how modern people are. came to seek knowledge of themselves from these experts. They shared the feeling that beneath progressive public welfare policies, demands for sexual freedom and assertiveness, and therapeutic practices of self-discovery lie a dangerous potential for authoritarianism and alienation.

Many American readers of the 1970s received their first introduction to Foucault de Lasch, who revised Foucault’s English translation. The birth of the clinic (1963) for the New York Times in 1976, and his History of sexuality, part one (1976) in Psychology today two years later. Lasch brilliantly summed up Foucault’s argument that the sexual liberation movement had distorted the past as purely repressive, while also instituting a new kind of power over sexuality and the secrets of intimate life, now vested in “jurisdiction. medical ”and“ therapeutic authority ”. Their approaches nevertheless presented important differences, Lasch tending to criticize feminism and to express nostalgia for a vanished moral sense that he described as populist – concerns that Foucault, more oriented towards individual freedom, only addressed moments as rare as his early support for the Iranian Revolution.

The culmination of Lasch and Foucault’s relationship came at the University of Vermont in 1982, by which time Foucault, with a date at UC Berkeley, had become a star in American academia. Lasch was one of many scholars invited to comment on Foucault’s work during a three-week period during which Foucault himself gave a series of lectures, “Technologies of the Self”. Foucault attributed their inspiration to Lasch Culture of narcissism (1979), in which Lasch argued that anxious individuals, deprived of economic security and cultural ties, invest their self-image and therapeutic self-discovery projects with unprecedented importance.

Foucault may have flattered his hosts, but his intellectual trajectory had indeed taken a turn parallel to that of Lasch. In his last lecture, Foucault noted that while his early work followed how institutions like asylums, hospitals and prisons – and bodies of knowledge like psychiatry, medicine and criminology – define “who we are” by excluding the abnormal, his next job History of sexuality focused on how individuals come to understand themselves in consultation with a range of so-called self-knowledge experts. Foucault worked from a broad perspective – following such expertise from philosophers of classical Athens to priests of late antiquity to psychiatrists today – and avoided Lasch’s more personal emphasis on the way modern narcissism makes us miserable. But both had a common sense of the problem.

In 1991, however, seven years after Foucault’s death, and three years before his own, Lasch rejected the French thinker, whose influence he had extended and whom he in turn influenced. In an article for Salmagundi, to which he has often contributed, titled “Academic pseudo-radicalism: the charade of subversion”, Lasch attributed to Foucault the assertion that “knowledge of any kind is purely a function of power”. In thus attributing to Foucault a position so clearly doomed to failure that it is difficult to imagine a thinker holding it, Lasch did not notice a convergence between the work of his last period and that of Foucault a decade later. early.

Towards the end of their lives, the two turned to the theme of religion, arguing that it provided the essential cultural and psychological resources needed for individuals to become truly self-reliant. They evolved into an understanding that in order to become the kind of independent individuals on which liberal democracy depends, we need what Foucault called “discipline” or “asceticism” – the ability to bind ourselves to other people who help us both to keep our commitments and to redo us. In his latest book, Revolt of the elites (1994), Lasch offered a similar perspective on the value of religion without showing that he was aware that he was following the same road as Foucault.

In Foucault’s country of origin, France, Lasch has been taken up today in certain corners of the radical left without fear of sometimes being taken for conservative moralists. Jean-Claude Michéa, the heterodox Marxist, wrote prefaces to recent French editions of Culture of narcissism and Revolt of the elites which shed light on Lasch’s critiques of globalization and the capitalist culture of self-fascination. We can also hear Lasch in the French collective Tiqqun’s Raw materials for a theory of the young girl (1999), a contemptuous attack on consumerism, spectacle and narcissism, seen as embodied by the modern sexually liberated woman.

In the United States, meanwhile, some of Lasch’s contemporary performers, such as Geoff Shullenberger, are also seeing Foucault again. From Shullenberger’s perspective (in dialogue with my own work on Foucault), it is possible to see how Lasch and Foucault came to criticize both traditional Marxism and the new identity radicalisms that emerged in the 1960s and 1970.

Conservatives often try to make sense of their cultural opponents through the genealogy of their ideas, tracing the “awakening” back to supposed intellectual ancestors like, ironically, Foucault. Others go back, even more unnecessarily, to Marx and Hegel, or analyze awakening as a new religion. Part of the value of Lasch and Foucault is that they can divert our attention from these wrong paths of intellectual history to the systems of knowledge, institutions, and practices with which Americans have become so obsessed with questions of identity in the first place.


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