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Published 22 October 2008, doi:10

Foucault contre lui-même (Foucault Against Himself)

by François Caillat, Director
Icarus Films, NY, NY, 2014
52 mins., col. [in French with English subtitles]
Distributor's website: www.icarusfilms.com/new2014/fou.html

Reviewed by Richard Kade
Ubiquitous Iconoclast
Sunnyvale, CA 94089-1622 USA


"Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: This is a moral birthright."

Much like twin bookmarks, this quote from Michel Foucault (1926 - 1984) begins and ends this cinematic oeuvre in a way reminiscent of the Aria at the start and end of Bach's Goldberg Variations (which gave rise to the idea of Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould [1]). There all similarities end and this puff-piece honoring Foucault, instead, calls to mind the disjointed and largely meaningless collaborations between the late Merce Cunningham and, even later, John Cage.

Perhaps the best rebuttal to the opening and ending epigraph would be the line from Mark Twain, "A man spends half his life figuring out who he is and the other half denying it."

Last things, first! In the film's epilog, Georges Didi-Huberman contends Foucault, however unwittingly, was in many ways heir to Baudelaire and that his reassembly of diverse disparate components leads either to "failure -- it's gratuitous and makes no sense -- or, in the best case scenario, you discover [as] Foucault often did … or you find a fertile analogy which reveals an un-thought idea."

The film is divided into four chapters:
Variations on Power
From Thinker to Activist
And Man's Place in This? And
A Life on the Margins, a Place in the Center

Perhaps key to any blinding flash of 20/20 hindsight is the aftermath of one phase of Foucault's odyssey: his time in Berkeley. That immutable incoherence which seemingly still reigns supreme on that same campus where Leo Bersani first invited Foucault to speak, reveals the evanescent nature of influence when all concerned are so deeply immersed in irrelevant idiocy.

The film does an admirable job of attempting to imbue the writings of Foucault with significance. Taken together or individually, they are akin to the labor of love by poor William Shanks (1812-1882) who spent much of his spare time calculating, by hand, the value of pi (3.14159265 …). While he did get the first 526 digits right out of the 707 he wrote out, only machine (FORTRAN) effort revealed his (human … miscopying from one page to the next) error, rendering everything from the 527th digit on, worthless.

One nice aesthetic touch for viewers and auditors of this film is the intermittent music from King Arthur by Henry Purcell (from the 1955 recording of the English Baroque Soloists conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner) used mostly as interludes between chapters as well as the film footage of late 1970s San Francisco demonstrations with Sousa audible above the spoken blather.

The official cause of Foucault's death was originally listed as heart failure although contributing factors have been rumored to be everything from AIDS to the ill effects of LSD (all from his time in the San Francisco Castro District).

The natural tack at this point for a review is to delve into each chapter giving details as to strengths or weaknesses but, since all chapters deal with the specific writings and other pronouncements by Foucault which, by their very nature, are so "out there" (as in "out in left field,") the more appropriate coda would be to quote from the (undated) interview snippet where, in response to the question of any lasting legacy to his life's work, Foucault points out that one can only make such an assessment after knowing that one's writing has reached its end and then summarizes:

"… what I'd like to know: how to arrive at knowledge. Arriving at knowledge, you know, it's all around us. We're in it. I'd say that, you know, someone like me, belonging to, born into the petite bourgeoisie, above this web of necessities we're trying to work through, we'll see the emergence of two big systems: major political and moral options. -- Colder, no? -- Colder, doubtless. I'd say that even if we don't see them. Since you can't pre-judge the future, then it's no big deal!"


[1] Girard, François, Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould Sony, New York, NY 1993.

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