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Foucault under the spotlight: The skeleton in the panopticon

Updated: May 2, 2023


Image by Albert Scholey


In his seminal 1975 book Discipline and Punish,1 French philosopher Michel Foucault presented the image of the panopticon - a circular prison with a watchtower in the centre - as a metaphor for the relationship between surveillance, power and control in modern disciplinary societies. The theoretical panopticon would allow the guards in the watchtower to not only observe the prisoners at any time, but also instil the feeling of being constantly surveilled onto its occupants. Foucault noted how modernity had swept away the old feudal approach of seeing “a fragment of regicide in the smallest crime”2 with harsh punishments for slight trespasses against the state; establishing in its place a new disciplinary order of crime and complimentary punishment, giving rise to the more subtle forms of surveillance and control that the panopticon was used to represent. What Foucault seems to have missed with his metaphor, however, is that it is now not only the prisoners who are constantly scrutinised and surveilled, not even the dead can escape the all-seeing eye of the panopticon.


In 2020, Guy Sorman levied an accusation against the then dead philosopher that painted him as evil beyond recognition.3 In an interview with France-Amérique, Sorman claimed that during his time in Tunisia in 1969 Foucault would pay eight-year-old children from the village he was staying in to have sex with them on top of graves in the cemetery under cover of night. This almost cartoonishly evil depiction would call into question whether we should even listen to the ideas of a person capable of such cruelty. It is, therefore, important for us to approach these allegations with appropriate scepticism and a critical eye.


Michel Foucault’s Wikipedia page now features a section on “Allegations of child sex abuse”4 and even The Spectator has run an article on “How Foucault was shielded from scandal by French reverence for intellectuals.”5 The Spectator article is vitriolic in its denunciation of Foucault as a “Gallic Jimmy Savile” protected by a left-wing intellectual establishment, but goes into very little detail on the specifics of the accusations. Maybe, then, we can find more accurate reporting and detail in the Los Angeles Legal Examiner’s piece on the “Founder of Woke Movement Accused of Sexual Abuse of Minors”?6 Unfortunately not, as this, likewise, seems to be nothing more than a political hitjob denouncing Foucault for his so-called “Nietzschean atheism” and method of intellectual archaeology.


If neither of these partisan sources are reliable then, perhaps, we ought to instead turn our focus to "The communiqué",7 released in the aftermath of the allegations by the Centre Michel Foucault co-signed by Foucault’s former partner Daniel Defert. The communiqué claims that Sorman's accusations are nothing short of defamation and highlights how journalists and investigations in the town of Sidi Bou Saïd where Foucault had stayed have failed to provide any level of support for the accusations. Not only that, it details how Sorman has since been forced to backtrack on most elements of his accusation: he is no longer certain that Foucault had ‘bought’ children, he is no longer capable of identifying the ages of men he claimed that Foucault had relations with, and now regards the details involving the cemetery as a mere rumour.


Most suspiciously, the date he claimed the events happened has now changed from 1969 to 1970 - a particularly interesting detail considering Foucault had already left Tunisia in 1968 for a teaching placement in Vincennes.8 We should naturally still exercise scepticism for this equally partisan organisation, but the fact that Sorman has been forced to backpedal on every aspect of his account should set off alarm bells. He now claims that “I’m not so interested in Foucault” (Je ne m'intéresse pas tellement à Foucault)9 and has distanced himself from the claims, yet the reactionary press and Wikipedia grunts still insist on maintaining his spurious accusations.


Why then would Guy Sorman make such slanderous claims and why would the right-wing media latch onto them as ferociously as they have? It would be useful to look at the history of the man who the Los Angeles Legal Examiner declared a “friend of Foucault”. Sorman is widely regarded as the “founder of neoliberalism in France” and worked for the former conservative President of France, Jacques Chirac. A political reactionary known for his vociferous defence of the former military dictator of Chile, Augusto Pinochet, Sorman advocates a “conservative revolution” to overturn the legacy of May 1968 in France. It should, therefore, not be too surprising for us that he would resort to such slanderous claims when denouncing the man he perceived to be the philosopher king of the French intellectual Left. The fact that he decided to use such an over-the-top extreme criminal accusation should also come as no surprise to anyone who is aware of Foucault’s work who himself said that: “outrageous crime does not have a nature; in fact, there is only a battle, rage, and fury that starts with crime and revolves around it”. Additionally, these claims were not made in a vacuum and reinforced a long-standing homophobic trope of painting queer people as paedophiles. This can be seen in the common French homophobic slur pédé (a clipping of the French word for pederast) as well as the current moral panic in the United States of widespread “child grooming” in schools by LGBT teachers.10


Foucault’s general philosophical approach is transgressive and anti-establishment; he ripped apart traditional understandings of sexuality to deconstruct and demystify their norms and practices, placing them in their historic context. While he is well recognised for paving the way for queer theory and later forms of postmodernism, his radical deconstruction of sexuality led to conclusions surrounding the social construction of consent that we must denounce. Foucault’s most notorious accusation of sympathies with paedophilia reported by both The Spectator and Los Angeles Legal Examiner articles was his signing of a petition in 1977. The petition called for the abolition of France’s unequal age of consent laws and was co-signed by Simone de Beauvoir, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Paul Sartre and many other French left-wing intellectuals of the time. It is worth noting that the main body of the petition is actually focussed on calling for the end of discrimination against homosexuality through the abrogation of Article 331 of the Penal Code (originally written as Article 334 by the puppet Vichy regime) which set the age of consent as 21 for same-sex relationships and 15 for heterosexuals. In fact, five years later the French government did react to the main critique levied by the petition and removed clauses referencing sodomy and “acts against nature” from its law. It is important to note that, despite the police in France cracking down on gay groups and activists at this time, homosexuality had been legal since the French Revolution. Instead, the state oppressed its gay population by draconian policing of the (originally fascist) laws articulated in Article 331.


Likewise, when same-sex activities were legalised in the UK in 1967, the age of consent was set at 21 compared to 16 for heterosexual relations. This meant that a 21-year-old having sex with a 20-year-old in France or Britain in the 1970s would be considered a paedophile only if they were gay. Around the same time that French intellectuals were signing this notorious petition, the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) was also campaigning in the UK for the abolition of the age of consent for those over the age of four. Despite its clearly despicable goals, the organisation had support from the National Council for Civil Liberties, now Liberty. Its former Director Shami Chakrabarti said that it represents “a source of continuing disgust and horror that even the NCCL had to expel paedophiles from its ranks in 1983 after infiltration at some point in the Seventies.”11 Both the infiltration of civil rights groups in the UK by paedophiles and the debate around age of consent by the French intelligentsia show the era’s shortcomings in understanding consent. Although consent is socially constructed, as we have seen by disparities between countries and over time, it reflects a very real psychological reality. Much like how our social construction of gender reflects a psychological and biological basis, age of consent laws reflect the psychological fact that the underage cannot give informed consent and are psychologically damaged by any such experiences. Notably for Foucault, too, there is an unreconcilable imbalance of power that further exacerbates the injustice, which he seems to have failed to recognise in his support for the petition.


While Foucault was misguided in supporting the 1977 petition’s attempts at tackling the injustice of unequal age of consent laws, we must not let this cloud our judgment that the accusation raised against Foucault was politically motivated and amounted to homophobic slander. We should not let reactionaries seize control of the narrative to denounce the radical legacy of their ideological opponents, but this does not mean that these legacies are undeserving of criticism. We must remain critical of our intellectual heritage while still avoiding presentism - the tendency to interpret historical events and attitudes by modern values and concepts. Perhaps, it would then be better for us not to focus on the dead men still trapped in the panopticon, but rather turn our gaze to the injustice of the prison itself.



By Jed Law

Empowering the Innocent (ETI) volunteer

Final year Philosophy and Sociology Student, University of Bristol


Please let us know if you think that there is a mistake in this article, explaining what you think is wrong and why. We will correct any errors as soon as possible.



References


1. FOUCAULT, M., 1975. Discipline and Punish

2. FOUCAULT, M. 1975. Chapter 4 In: Abnormal

3. Matthew Campbell, 28 March 2021. French philosopher Michel Foucault ‘abused boys in Tunisia’ The Times https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/french-philosopher-michel-foucault-abused-boys-in-tunisia-6t5sj7jvw

4. Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michel_Foucault#Allegations_of_child_sex_abuse

5. Stuart Jeffries, 31 July 2021. How Foucault was shielded from scandal by French reverence for intellectuals. The Spectator https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/france-s-reverence-for-intellectuals-shielded-michel-foucault-from-scandal/

6. Joseph H. Saunders, 4 April 2021. French Philosopher and Founder of Woke Movement Accused of Sexual Abuse of Minors. Los Angeles Legal Examiner https://losangeles.legalexaminer.com/legal/french-philosopher-and-founder-of-woke-movement-accused-of-sexual-abuse-of-minors/

7. Centre Michel Foucault, 24 May 2021. Press release on Guy Sorman’s accusations against Michel Foucault:

https://centremichelfoucault.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Communiqu%C3%A9-Foucault_English-rev-2.pdf

8. Lundimatin, 16 April 2021. The Black Masses of Michel Foucault, the Bullshit of Guy Sorman https://lundi.am/The-Black-Masses-of-Michel-Foucault-the-Bullshit-of-Guy-Sorman

9. Philippe Chevallier, 4 September 2021. Michel Foucault et la pédophilie: enquête sur un emballement médiatique. L’express https://www.lexpress.fr/idees-et-debats/michel-foucault-et-la-pedophilie-enquete-sur-un-emballement-mediatique_2148517.html

10. Claire Woodcock, 28 October 2022. Anti-LGBTQ Groups Are Helping Enforce a ‘Book Ban’ Law in Florida. Vice https://www.vice.com/en/article/pkgvbv/anti-lgbtq-groups-are-helping-enforce-a-book-ban-law-in-florida

11. Christopher Hope, 24 February 2014. Harriet Harman, Jack Dromey, Patricia Hewitt and the Paedophile Information Exchange. The Telegraph.

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/labour/10659100/Harriet-Harman-Jack-Dromey-Patricia-Hewitt-and-the-Paedophile-Information-Exchange.html

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