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Flirting with Foucault

Flirting with Foucault (by Douglas Dowland)

In the spring of 1975, Simeon Wade, a struggling junior faculty member at Claremont Graduate University, wrote a letter to Michel Foucault. He heard that Foucault was coming to Berkeley to lecture, and invited him to campus. He included in his invitation a “demanding program” of seminars, lectures, and parties for the critic to attend, “a generous honorarium” and “a bevy of California young men to entertain” him. The philosopher declined Wade’s invitation.

But Wade was persistent. He and his partner Michael Stoneman swarmed Foucault at a lecture in Irvine. Foucault wanted to visit Death Valley. Wade and Stoneman would arrange this. They also arranged, without telling Foucault, something of an experiment. While in the Valley, they would offer the philosopher LSD. Though hesitant at first, Foucault tried it and had an epiphanic experience. Foucault in California is Wade’s account of their shared adventure.

Critics are not sure what to make of Wade’s little book. In the Los Angeles Review of Books, James Penner’s classifies it as “a sub-sub genre of nonfiction: the LSD memoir,” though Penner is noticeably uncomfortable with what constitutes most of the book: the lush, unashamed depictions of Foucault as he goes about mundane activities of academic life, and the seemingly endless questions Wade asks that are intended to give us an insider’s view on the philosopher, from his writing habits to the content of his dreams. Andrew Marzoni’s essay in The Baffler is impressively researched but seems more interested in the tragedies of Wade’s life after Foucault’s visit—his expulsion from Claremont, and his inability to get his book published in his lifetime.

One senses in these reviews a hesitation to take Wade and his book seriously. After all, Wade embodies every characteristic of the unreliable narrator. He’s stoned while observing Foucault’s acid trip; he’s sloppy in his record-keeping (evidence of Foucault’s visit, including photographs, took years to find, and Foucault’s letters to Wade and his partner were uncovered only after Wade’s death). And Wade’s unclear in the purpose of writing the account in the first place; did he aim to celebrate Foucault’s genius, or to place himself alongside it? Wade’s state of mind, his archive, his motive: all of these become murkier the longer one sits with Foucault in California.

Even worse, Wade spends much of the memoir flirting with Foucault. His conversations with the philosopher leap from the cosmetic talk of strangers on a first date—do you have any brothers or sisters? do you vote?—to the inventorying of fetishes that those very same strangers might enjoy before agreeing to a frenetic fuck. As their green Volvo sputters out of the California smog toward Death Valley, Wade can’t resist asking Foucault if he masturbates, (“Of course.”) Nor can he resist upping the ante: does Foucault own chaps (yes); does he own tit-clamps? (“Oh, absolutely.”) Yet the philosopher remains, throughout Wade’s book, unmoved. A jaunt to West Hollywood is cancelled when it does not interest Foucault; he politely declines Wade’s offer to let him sleep on his vibrating waterbed. It’s tempting to dismiss Wade’s flirtation as another sign of his unreliability.

Yet that would be to commit criticism’s ongoing mistake of separating eros from philia and further commit to a separation of body and mind that the affective turn has called into question. Indeed, that critics hesitate over Wade’s book—and that they have so far not given attention to his flirting—says much about how critical inquiry handles flirtation: dismissively, then suspiciously.

And so I read Wade’s memoir as something of a provocation about what constitutes the act of reading. Certainly, Wade’s is a memoir that flirts with us, the audience of theory afficionados who want to know more about Foucault, offering us little doses of observation and gossip to keep us in the game. But perhaps what we find so eccentric and attractive in Simeon Wade is how his intellection seamlessly aligns with his affection, reflecting a joie de vivre that goes against what we would consider the normative posture of the critic and the writing we expect him to produce. Wade’s memoir is both tawdry and smart, cosmetic and generous. As such, Foucault in California offers us an alternative way to write about the enjoyments of reading. It’s a memoir that reminds us that there is more to thinking than critique, that there are ways of attentively reading an object that are beyond the solitary and prudent ways of critical suspicion.

***

To Simeon Wade, there is no distinction between the mind and the body, the intellectual and the sexual. For him, Michel Foucault is both “the greatest thinker of our time” and a participant in the “infamous circle of homosexual intellectuals in Paris.” Indeed, Wade’s first sight of Foucault nests one inside the other. Foucault’s bald pate, Wade observes, is “marked by several extra lobes, which bulged from the apex of the brain stem.” Foucault’s mind appears to be so endowed that his skull can barely contain the thoughts within. Yet Foucault’s head is not the only part of his body that bulges. Foucault’s “white turtleneck under an open madras jacket revealed a powerful torso with well-defined contours. His white bell-bottom trousers fit him closely around the pelvis and thighs. He looked like an athlete rather than an academic.”

The sheer gratuitousness of such descriptions points towards Wade’s worship of Foucault; they are also, in their gratuitousness, reflective of the multiple pleasures of seeing a great intellect in person. Wade’s reading of Foucault harmonizes the philosopher’s intellectual prowess with his physical body, in effect connecting what we experience in his books with what we see of him in person. There’s an effervescence that comes from such purple prose that might make a scholar blush. Yet Wade’s writing performs, in a ludic register, the scholar’s tactics of thesis-argument-intervention. And it’s done with a practiced eye that methodically, from head to toe, scans the philosopher’s body. Ultimately, Wade shows us that there is little difference between how academics check each other out at lectures and how men cruise.

It is the energy that comes from such uncloseted looking that makes Wade’s book possible. And none of it would have happened without the most rudimentary of flirts. Unable to get Foucault’s attention at Irvine, Wade’s partner captured the philosopher’s attention by remarking in fluent French: “I thought you might do yoga since you have such a beautiful body.” The great thinker of epistemes, our archeologist, our analyzer of disciplinary regimes and sexuality and biopower falls for the equivalent of: If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?

The flirt is simple. What it creates is profound. It opens the door not only to experience—for Foucault, the trip to Death Valley and the trip that LSD gave the philosopher—but also to discourse—for Wade, the chance to tell the tale of his experience with his intellectual hero. From such stock utterances great things can come, including, for Foucault, great insight. As Wade discerns, the effect of LSD was both mental and bodily for Foucault. Staring out at the badland abyss of Zabriskie Point, sipping Grand Marnier and tripping under the stars, Foucault tells Wade that “the sky has exploded and the stars are raining down upon me. I know this is not true, but it is the Truth.” Foucault himself connects the mysticism of the experience with the eroticism of bodies. He tells Wade, “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.” Here, Foucault carefully discerns that LSD had given him more than he had anticipated. Tripping in Death Valley is not mere philosophy, “but something else entirely.”

What this “something else” was remains a mystery. But the LSD was only part of the journey. It allowed Foucault to flirt with another realm of understanding, but Wade and his partner Stoneman also allowed Foucault to flirt with another realm of community. The day after the acid trip, they took the philosopher to visit a group who live in the hills near Mount Baldy in a “kind of Taoist commune.” It was a community of eager, learned men who do not escape Foucault’s, or Wade’s, eyes. There’s David, the “resplendently naked” student writing his dissertation on R.D. Laing; Chris, “a blond surfer type in a strong, wiry body” who plays guitar; John, an aspiring musician “who wore dirty pants and sported an enormous phallus, which he enjoyed in a sleazy kind of way”; Jake, a hairy-chested biker fascinated with the concept of entropy; Lance, “medium height, bubble butt, a skier and all-around athlete” studying at Pomona, and Jim, a carpenter who lives in a treehouse and emits a “Reichian energy that was irresistible.” They talk with Foucault about Althusser and Gramsci and the beginning of Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason, if only because Foucault admits he’d never read beyond its first fifty pages.

Although Wade describes the commune’s inhabitants with the diction of gay pulp fiction, Foucault intuited that this motley crew was a sort of Swiss Family Robinson, telling them that he preferred that novel over Robinson Crusoe. It seems to be Jake that appeals the most to Foucault, who worries to the philosopher that he is lost in life. Foucault tells him that “You have to be lost as a young man. You are not really trying unless you are lost. That is a good sign. I was lost as a young man too.” If we accuse Wade, as other critics have, of overly identifying with Foucault, we should note that the warm, convivial space of identification flowed throughout Foucault’s adventures in California. The commune is a seminar without the pressure to perform; it’s a space where its inhabitants feel the solidarity of people thinking together, helping each other with the project of their lives. In this space, Michel Foucault is both the man of impenetrable monographs and the dispenser of brotherly advice; he is both an esteemed French philosopher and a fellow lost man, older among younger. The commune offers a space of affiliation and affirmation, which could have, given Foucault’s descriptions of Parisian intellectual life as dogmatic and partisan, seemed just as hallucinogenic to the philosopher as the acid trip at Zabriskie Point.

This is the world that flirtation opens. A stock phrase, a common gambit, a lurid remark: these can lead to sex and romance, but they can also lead to individual epiphanies, friendships, and new communities. The Foucault that Wade captures is a mundane man—he has never been inside a French prison; he shops at a supermarket; he drives a used Renault. And yet, at the same time, he is an extraordinary man who is energized by and energizing to those around him. Concluding their adventures, Wade drops Foucault off at the airport to return to Berkeley and captures the multidimensional nature of the philosopher. “As 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, imperceptible.” And Wade’s memoir culminates with a man changed by his experience with Foucault. As he did with Foucault’s appearance in the lecture theater at Irvine, Wade’s final observation nests the philosopher’s mind within his body. As Foucault gets into his plane, Wade notes that “His eyes glistened with the radiance of Venus rising over Zabriskie Point. Foucault molecularized into the arms of his men and then he was gone.”

***

Critical theory, as one sadly expects, has little good to say about flirting. Sigmund Freud found the practice to be “empty” and “hollow” and presumed that flirts knew that, from the beginning of their dalliance, that “nothing [was] going to happen.” Adam Phillips, try as he might in his book On Flirtation to do otherwise, turns Freud’s hasty dismissal into a method, insisting that flirting is “an often unconscious form of skepticism.” Barbara Vinken similarly writes that “deceit, the possibility of not being taken seriously, lurks around every corner” in the act of flirtation. When we flirt, “the authenticity of our feelings in in danger.” Criticism warns us that flirting is a risky business in which we will be inevitably duped. People who flirt are hiding something, either from us (Freud) or themselves (Phillips), and the only way to be true to ourselves (Vinken) is to dismiss them outright.

Criticism privileges a sober, respectable reading practice in which critics’ superiority over the text is assured through their serious approach to their objects of study. Criticism’s disregard of flirting is emblematic of theory’s energy-draining tendency. As Rita Felski has written, a “detached, dispassionate demeanor” characterizes the critic: a “professional suspicion” that trades surprise and community for routine and productivity. The criticism that such a stance produces is totally safe but stingingly antiseptic; it does not get dirty because it ignores the text’s temptations. The result of this stance is that we read article after article about a text’s political unconscious without ever getting to the text’s id. We read article after article about the politics of pleasure written in voices that never aspire to evoke it.

Indeed, criticism is often an anti-flirt club. We should not underestimate the desire of theory’s practitioners to quash the flirtations that theory produces. Indeed, as Marzoni also writes, Wade’s dismissal from Claremont was motivated by the concern his colleagues had that he might publish his “book on Death Valley,” which could also reveal that not all their faculty were, as Wade described, “smug and churchy” and not all their students were “affluent and careerist.” That Foucault could have an intellectual epiphany, not through pious study in the library but through sex with men or the ingestion of lysergic acid diethylamide, was just too shocking. Yet it’s a shock that persists today; many a Foucault scholar, it seems, has tried to side-step or belittle Wade’s book.

The response to Wade’s book, both then and now, reminds us that there is no room for joie de vivre in the work of criticism. The pleasures that mix body and mind, the pleasures of life: they cannot be compartmentalized, isolated, ideologized, dismissed. As Roland Barthes pointed out long ago, the profession of criticism “deals with the texts of pleasure, never the texts of bliss.” Too often, the professional enterprise of criticism asks us to put our bliss in the closet.

Yet reading, as Barthes tells us, is a lot like cruising; the critic seeks out a seam in the narrative, an unpredictable place where although “the bets are not placed, there can still be a game” to be made out of interpretation. Throughout Foucault in California, Wade reads the philosopher with bliss and shows us the bliss that theory can evoke. Hanging out in the mountains with a group of boys or lecturing to a crowded audience at Irvine, Wade’s depiction of Foucault recalls Jordan Alexander Stein’s recent explorations of what theory can give us beyond its ability to transform how we read texts. “Theory offered us a way of understanding the world that,” Stein writes, “like so many youthful exuberances, was equal parts vital and ridiculous. Verbose abstractions were things out of which we built concrete friendships. They fueled the experiments we conducted with living and loving, eating and dreaming, doing and having.” Wade’s memoir tracks the ridiculous (yes, the philosopher wears bright red jockey shorts to bed) and the vital, what Stein calls the “lavish attention on the scene of our learning”—and what I might call the devotion (in all senses of that word: nurturant, companionate, sexual and spiritual) that theory brings. Wade’s memoir captures the experience of the academic and the public communities that earnestly loved Foucault without sycophancy, who were earnestly “grateful,” as Wade tells the philosopher, “for your work and the enlightenment you have brought us.” “Michel,” Wade says, “there are so many of us here who love you.”

***

Flirtation opens up the door to love. And to raise the ante, I’ll wager this: reading opens up the door to love. Can we say the same of theory?

What’s theory without flirting? It’s suspicion—and little more.

Flirtation opens a queer world where one imagines the depths of the other’s sea while watching their surfaces for what Samuel Delany calls “the motion of light in water.” Flirting is a way of attuning, a state of alertness to the gratifications of the present moment and to the plural futures that might happen afterward. I would like to think of flirting not only as a physical gesture but also as an intellectual limerence. Think of the moment, as you read a book, where the shape of the plot appears, and we pause to wonder at which direction it will take us—or the delight of an enjambed line in a poem that makes us resist our automatic tendency to read onward. The possibilities seem endless; the situation is dense with desire. Theory’s vocabulary has little room for such pleasures. Works like Wade’s memoir, if we read its flirtation as part of its intellection, will expand it.

Did his acid trip in Death Valley so transform Foucault that, as Wade writes, 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”? Quite likely not. But it seems to have done something that I might suggest is more powerful. At a post-lecture party, Foucault tells Wade that “what I like about California is that the word ‘homosexual’ doesn’t mean very much here anymore … There is a freedom in talking about homosexuality here. The word is not pejorative.” Looking back, those are words well before the time of 1975. Yet they capture how Foucault was transformed by his experience with Wade, and how the experience shaped his life. In later trips to California, Foucault would visit with Wade and Stoneman, yet even in France, he felt their pull. “I feel that I have to emigrate and become a Californian,” he would write to them. Indeed, the trip stayed on Foucault’s mind to the very end. “I hope to see you in California next fall,” he wrote Wade in January 1984, six months before he passed away.

Simeon Wade’s joie de vivre made a home for Michel Foucault. I wonder if it can make a home for us. As academics and the public alike become tired of criticism’s rote suspicion, something like Wade’s Foucault in California can show us a way to save theory from its opponents. Wade’s flirting with Foucault is part of a broader practice of the intellectual life that endeared him to former students and won over Heather Dundas, who offers an insightful foreword to the book. She was, she admits, initially searching for a project that would expose “all the privilege and arrogance of the theory movement.” What she wanted to find in Wade’s manuscript—“a satire about idiot academics in the desert”—turned out to be untenable given Wade’s personal generosity and the sincerity of his “high-velocity voice.” From meetings on Fridays once a month, their friendship grew to the point that they celebrated birthdays and holidays together. Wade’s charm never cooled.

This is the energy that comes from a life of flirting: exuberant, utopian, yearning. The flirt reads texts, ideas, and the world as a fantasy in bloom. Over and over again, with a spirit that does not discriminate and which theory must cede space to emulate, flirting brings people together, perhaps for a few minutes, perhaps for an evening, perhaps for a lifetime.

Douglas Dowland is Associate Professor of English at Ohio Northern University.