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The Final “Final Foucault”?


At the Los Angeles Review of Books, philosopher Joseph Tanke reflects on the recent publication in French of the fourth volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality project. Entitled Les aveux de la chair (Confessions of the Flesh), this volume was nearly complete at the time of Foucault’s death in 1984 but is only seeing publication now. As Tanke notes, it continues the historical investigation of the “subject of desire” that framed the previous volumes, and also points towards future areas of inquiry, making clear that at the time of his death, Foucault’s ambitious project was far from complete. Here’s an excerpt:

In France, the recent publication of the fourth — and many would argue essential — volume of the History of Sexuality, Les aveux de la chair (Confessions of the Flesh), promises to alleviate some of this frustration and to teach us much about the Final Foucault. The appearance of the fourth volume is itself the most significant event in the world of Foucault scholarship since the publication of his lecture courses from the Collège de France nearly 20 years ago. This volume is expected to fuel a number of ongoing debates, including those concerning the reasons for Foucault’s departure from the plan outlined in the project’s first volume, and likely to generate an interest in some of the lesser-known aspects of Foucault’s work, like his long-standing conversation with religion.

Inasmuch as the notion of the flesh was evoked at crucial moments in the other volumes of the History of Sexuality, the fourth volume contains an exposition essential to Foucault’s broader vision. Dedicated to analyzing the Christian experience of the flesh as it emerged in the first five centuries of the common era, this volume offers readers an in-depth examination of figures such as Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, John Cassian, and Augustine of Hippo. Composed in the sober, academic style of the second and third volumes of the History of Sexuality, Confessions of the Flesh registers as a weighty tome, likely a difficult read, and assumes considerable knowledge of religious history and Catholic doctrine. But, ultimately, the publication of this volume provides an opportunity for readers to better understand the moments of transformation and the instances of transmission that have defined the experience of sex in the Western world, and which loom so largely in Foucault’s late writings.

Image of Michel Foucault via


in 1975 Foucault had what he called “the greatest experience of his life” on LSD in Death Valley, California. After that experience his work shifted from what could be called “technical analysis of discourse and genealogy” to “investigations into paradigms of subjectivity.” In short he looked at antiquity, in particular the transitions from the Roman Republic, to Roman Empire, and then into early Christianity, and found various subjective forms - constructions - of “self.” For him the Stoic construction and the Stoic version of parrhesia stood out as possible models from re-engineering the contemporary self of the late 20th Century.

I’m looking forward to reading this, because it appears that he once again looked at how historic figures from the later part of his target era dealt with, and adapted to, the new demands of the Christian era on the psyche. I believe Foucault investigated the construction of the Christian subjectivity and its attendant relation to the power structure of Imperial Rome - one that closely mimics our own era’s power structure. In looking at the construction of the Christian self, paths towards critique are like cracks in the foundation.

Lyotard also had a particularly California vision too, one that he explored in Pacific Wall about the limits of the westward movement of expelled components of the European social order. I’m thinking of religious extremists that were forced out after the Reformation. When that movement hit the wall in California it began to reverberate if you will. In the landscape of California we can find remnants of all the various technologies of self swirling about in religious or pseudo-religious practices. (for amplification I recommend De Certeau’s Mystic Fable.)

I would argue that the late Foucault bears a closer relation to California thinking that to French (read Cartesian) thought, and we can see a parallels in the Californian’s easy flux between est, yoga, Pentecostalism, Scientology, zen, UFO cults, and even The Doors and LSD. We can see paralleles in the now dominant tech and screen based consciousness (of which this very forum is an exponent.) The late Foucault is anything but Cartesian and we owe that to his delirium in Death Valley.

Let me be clear: I do not want to authenticate the psychedelic experience - the chemically induced state - as the generator of visions such as Foucault’s late work. Rather the experience of being in California as a mindset is critical. The reflection of the westward movement of culture that happens here is a valuable critical stance, one that encompasses east and west, ways specific to this locus. That mindset is what I believe the late works of Foucault got at.