Sunday, 29 July 2007

"I'd never met anyone who was so totally amoral"

"If Foucalt's way of thinking was fundamentally alien, even to militant young lycee students versed in French philosophy, it was even more unfathomable to a great many political activists and intellectuals, both inside and outside France.

"The most vivid (and amusing) example of the sort of reaction Foucault could provoke may be his debate with the American linguist Noam Chomsky. Staged for Dutch television, the meeting took place in November, 1971 - and Chomsky still remembers it well. "He struck me as completely amoral," says Chomsky. "I'd never met anyone who was so totally amoral."

"As Chomsky recalls, they met and spent several hours together before the program was taped, establishing some common ground despite the language barriers (Chomsky spoke little French, and Foucault was not yet as proficient in English as he would become). They exchanged political small talk, and discussed the Port-Royal grammarians, one of their shared scholarly interests.

"But there were already signs that this was not going to be any ordinary debate. Hoping to puncture the prim sobriety of the Dutch audience, the program's host, Fons Elders, a professed anarchist, had obtained a bright red wig, which he tried, unsuccessfully, to convince Foucault to wear. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Chomsky, Foucault had received, in partial payment for his appearance, a large chunk of hashish, which for months afterwards, Foucault and his Parisian friends would jokingly refer to as the "Chomsky hash"

The television program itself began placidly enough: Chomsky defended the idea of a "biologically given, unchangeable" foundation to human nature, and Foucault raised some doubts. Chomsky summarized his ideas about generative grammar, and Foucault briefly explained why historiography for him required "effacing the dilemma of the knowing subject."

"As the conversation continued in this vein, Elders kept poking Foucault under the table, pointing to the red wig on his lap, and whispering, "put it on, put it on." Foucault tried to ignore him, but as Elders' questions became more and more needling, he began to bristle"

from The Passion of Michel Foucault
James Miller

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