Peterson versus Foucault

Twitter is doing as Twitter does this evening. It’s a deeply ugly and uncomfortable place to be. But no, it’s not increasingly unhinged chatter about Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Philosophy Twitter is engaging in “Was Foucault a nonce?” discourse again.

Jordan Peterson is the reason why, somewhat unsurprisingly. He’s been on Wikipedia again and is using it as the basis for more of his hollow reasoning. But as myopic as it is, in this instance it unfortunately doesn’t make him wrong.

Michel Foucault kept uncomfortable company. Rumours abound about his conduct in Tunisia and there really was an open letter signed by many intellectuals at the time in favour of man-boy love. But having recently read the diaries of Foucault’s one-time lover, Herve Guibert, it seems to get much worse than that.

Guibert makes occasional reference to a friend — someone other than Foucault — who actively shared and lusted over photos of boys. At the time, this predilection seemed to be viewed, by some, as just another sexual frontier. As such, Guibert admits to looking and trying the fantasy on, and he even wrote a book about one ill-fated love affair, but he ultimately seems repulsed by his friend’s obsession, even if his own repulsion makes him all the more curious.

It all makes for queasy reading in the present. Suffice it to say, from what I’ve read, it is clear that the avant-garde end of French culture — particularly French queer culture — did a little bit too much soul-searching about having sex with boys. On that note, the unleashing of a unprecedented sexual revolution clearly went way too far.

Nothing about this suggests we need to make excuses for those involved. These are just the facts. It’s all there to be read. None of this has somehow been repressed or hidden away in archives. You can read it for yourself. And that’s how it should be. It makes the time in which these men lived much easier to understand. It still doesn’t excuse any of it, but the mildest way of putting it would simply be that these confessions have not aged well. It may have been a grey area for them; it is not for us.

All of this presents a real ethical quandary, given how important Foucault’s work on sexuality is to so many — not to mention how his own archaeological approach to the history of ideas has complicated our view of how sexuality has previously been understood and expressed. The irony is that Foucault presents us with numerous tools for critiquing his own sexual conduct and that of his generation more broadly.

But his work also helps us to see how errant bodies and “monstrous” or “abnormal” sexualities continue to be controlled, manipulated and suppressed. Read through Foucault himself — or anyone else with a couple of brain cells — it is clear that Peterson’s aim here is to do nothing more than contribute to contemporary bigotry and idiocy.

The very real pederasty of a subset of French queer intellectuals is being used, in this instance, to exacerbate a false equivalence between homosexuality and pedophilia that has seen a broader cultural resurgence of late. Indeed, this attack on Foucault is just a retreading of the old battlelines that Peterson made his name antagonising. It’s bathroom discourse supplanted onto intellectual history — trans women are an innate threat to our children, as are the gays and the postmodern left more generally. We need look no further than the recent implementation of anti-trans legislation in Texas to see how this false equivalence between queerness and criminality is made to further a far more real and current form of child abuse, which isn’t the preserve of some wrong-headed sexual vanguardists but the state itself.

Foucault isn’t directly relevant here at all, but surely the only reason anyone could be bothered to try and delegitimise him in this context is that he literally wrote the book on the historical precedents for criminalising those who do not express their gender as society demands.

All this is to say that Foucault doesn’t need to be defended. He also doesn’t need to be performatively condemned. We simply need to see this cynical attempt at whataboutery for what it is: the most abhorrent beliefs of one long-dead man are being used to justify the reactionary might of the state right now.

However, it doesn’t take a genius to see how the two things do not cancel each other out. Peterson himself even seems to be on the cusp of recognising this when he notes how no one denies his claims about Foucault, instead saying that he is a bad person. It’s because both things can be true. That Peterson can point out that this other man was a repugnant symptom of a rotten society does not negate the fact that he is a repugnant symptom of all that is wrong with the present one.

Was Foucault a pedophile? A terrible human being? Perhaps he was. He was also a brilliant scholar. Does that redeem him? Debatable. But the broader point is that Peterson doesn’t seem to have any redeeming qualities whatsoever. What he hopes is a “gotcha!” is destined to backfired when he finds himself even less respected than a suspected nonce…

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