This book, based on the "philosophical life" of the late French philosopher Michel Foucault, reveals the mind of a man who was, says Miller, "one of the most original---and daring---thinkers of the century." Far from being just another biography of Foucault's life, Miller's thoroughly researched project demonstrates time and again the intimate interconnection between the way a life is lived and the thinking and writing that can come from that life. But this is much more than just an intellectual history. One Can't help but share in the passion that speaks through Miller's writing, powerfully earning this book its title.
Foucault said, "...there is not a book I have written that does not grow, at least in part, out of a direct, personal experience." Each chapter of Miller's book gradually unfolds the truth of this statement, beginning with Foucault's earliest writings on madness and mental illness, through his works on knowledge and criminality, to his final opus on the nature of human sexuality. Foucault's unorthodox approach to history is made clear, revealing a revolutionary philosophy based not on structured logic and reason, but growing instead from the realm of experience, in keeping with the "great Nietzschean quest [to] become what one is."
I personally found this book quite disturbing, still accepting as I do many principles of existential humanism, especially those of free will and personal responsibility. But humanism as a whole is a philosphy Foucault and his contemporaries emphatically reject as "a diminution of man," made up of "everything in Western civilization that restricts the desire for power" and "every attitude that considers the aim of politics to be the production of happiness." In reality, says Foucault, happiness does not exist---and the happiness of man exists still less."
"The individual," he is reported to have said, "is contingent, formed by the weight of moral tradition, not really autonomous." And we "can and must make of man a negative experience, lived in the form of hate and aggression."
Somewhat stunned, I've nevertheless gained from Miller's book a new understanding of the world I live in, and of myself as part of that world. "Under the impact of civilization," he summarizes, "the will to power (Freud's 'death instinct') has been driven inward and turned against itself---creating within the human being a new inclination: to destroy himself." So, if Foucault is right, the basic truth that society tries to make humans homogenously "tame" is itself the very root of the violence and decadence of our times. If we are to point to the cause of these problems, we can only point at ourselves and at our structured ways of thinking. The problem is not what we have allowed to be, but rather what we have tried to deny and eliminate. "I am referring," says Foucault, "to all those experiences that have been rejected by our civilization, or which it accepts only within literature." This view throws the current move toward increased artistic censorship into new and unexpected relief.
For Foucault, then, the issue is the same, whatever the subject at hand: the concept of madness, our systems of language and knowledge, law and the punishment of crime, or the idea and expression of our individual sexuality. Regardless of our lifestyle, history has told us the limits of what we can be, and as individuals and as a culture we are paying a great price for believeing it. According to Foucault, the solution can only be to "free ourselves from...cultural conservatism, as well as from political conservatism. We must see our rituals for what they are: completely arbitrary things." We must find the "limits" of our thinking and learn to transcend them. Says Foucault, "...the unity of society [is] precisely that which should...be destroyed."
Miller's book is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!!