Foucault in the Desert of the Real

Several weeks later, after an evening of tequila sunrises, Scriabin sonatas, marijuana, and literary conversation, the three men leave for the desert at dawn. “We brought along a powerful elixir, a kind of philosopher’s stone Michael happened upon,” Wade tells his guest. “We thought you might enjoy a visionary quest in Death Valley.” […]

The trio’s destination, Zabriskie Point, was the very spot that had provided Michelangelo Antonioni with the setting and title of his 1970 hippie movie, which Pauline Kael panned as a “pathetic mess” in The New Yorker, assuming that the Italian was “baffled by America and it all got away from him.” If Antonioni was guilty of being an aging European intellectual belatedly drawn to the American counterculture’s image of youth in revolt, he wasn’t the only one. In November 1975, Foucault crossed paths with his colleagues Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari at Semiotext(e)’s “Schizo-Culture” conference at Columbia University, the latter two having journeyed across the Atlantic to see for themselves: They met Allen Ginsberg backstage at Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue in Lowell, Massachusetts, Jack Kerouac’s hometown, before flying to California, where they visited Patti Smith in Berkeley, Lawrence Ferlinghetti in San Francisco, and Henry Miller in Big Sur. At almost the same time, Jean Baudrillard embarked from San Diego on a theoretical road trip he later chronicled in 1986’s America, in whose deserts, both ecological and semiotic, he found a hyperreal “microcosm of the West,” and at Disneyland, saw “a parody of the world of the imagination.” In Death Valley, Baudrillard writes, “everything human is artificial.”

It appears that Foucault drew different conclusions. Over several hours, he and his companions take in the Mojave vistas, drink chartreuse, listen to Stockhausen, and emit the aphoristic bits of pseudo-wisdom that hallucinogens are known for prompting: “Music is our theology,” “The sky has exploded and the stars are raining down upon me. I know this is not true, but it is the Truth.” At one point, there is an argument over whether the car doors should stay open or closed. With “tears streaming from his eyes,” Foucault declares, “Tonight I have achieved a fresh perspective on myself. I now understand my sexuality. It all seems to start with my sister. We must go home again.”

I enjoyed this article in The Baffler on Foucault’s near-mythic excursion in Death Valley.

This exclamation in the desert is particularly interesting. Just as Mark noted in his Acid Communism intro, Foucault encounter with the Outside confirmed what he already knew and expressed in his previous philosophical excursions, allowing him to find the strange in the familiar.

We must all go back home again.

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