The Poitiers Years
by Michael C. Behrent
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Pub Date 04 Dec 2023 | Archive Date 16 Oct 2023
Though Michel Foucault is one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century, little is known about his early life. Even Foucault’s biographers have neglected this period, preferring instead to start the story when the future philosopher arrives in Paris.
Becoming Foucault is a historical reconstruction of the world in which Foucault grew up: the small city of Poitiers, France, from the 1920s until the end of the Second World War. Beyond exploring previously unexamined aspects of Foucault’s childhood, including his wartime ordeals, it proposes an original interpretation of Foucault’s oeuvre. Michael Behrent argues that Foucault, in addition to being a theorist of power, knowledge, and selfhood, was also a philosopher of experience. He was a thinker intent on making sense of the events that he lived through. Behrent identifies four specific experiences in Foucault’s childhood that exercised a decisive influence on him and that, in various ways, he later made the subject of his philosophy: his family’s deep connections to the medical profession; his upbringing in a bourgeois household; the German Occupation during World War II; and his Catholic education.
Behrent not only reconstructs the specific nature of these experiences but also shows how reference to them surfaces in Foucault’s later work. In this way, the book both sheds light on a formative period in the philosopher’s life and offers a unique interpretation of key aspects of his thought.
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Average rating from 3 members
a competent, well-researched biography that becomes surprisingly gripping as its main subject becomes older. i studied foucault’s texts extensively throughout my degree, but i’d never really stopped to research his background or his earlier years, and this was a perfect way to get to know the way his life went before he became one of the brightest minds of the twentieth century.
Becoming Foucault: The Poitiers Years, by Michael C Behrent, is an accessible account of Foucault's early years and, more important, how they played a large role in what concepts he considered and how he approached them. Not in a deterministic "this caused that" way but more as shaping his perspective.
This seems like it would have been more seriously considered before now, but it has largely been ignored or glossed over. Of course our experiences influence how we perceive things, what social and political structures impinge on our lives, and thus how we think about things. What Behrent does is show the ways in which Foucault's formative years, spent in a very specific place, helped an already inquisitive mind to find questions and methods to satisfy that curiosity.
What I took away on a first read says a lot more about what I missed in my years of reading, studying, and teaching Foucault than anything else. As time went on, I tended, like many probably do, to use (and perhaps sometimes unintentionally misuse) and teach the same works and ideas repeatedly. Such is the nature of specialization. What I got further and further from, however, was an appreciation of the body of his work, both the areas that contradicted each other (often in the same way my opinions today no doubt contradict many of my opinions from forty years ago) as well as the ones that ran through a lot of his work. These threads, I think, are the things that Behrent's perspective can allow me to go back and find, which will give a more rounded perception of Foucault's work.
While I'm not sure how much someone new to Foucault will get out of this, I think anyone with an interest in his thought will be richly rewarded by reading this and taking this perspective into account in your own application of his ideas.
Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.
This book is detective work on the part of Behrent, who skillfully takes the times and surroundings of the young Foucault and completes a picture that even his exhaustive biographies so far did not fully capture.
What we get is a broad view of a battle ground. A number of important conflicts and contradictions were present in the development of France. Power meant to liberate, turned into the abuse of some for the benefit of others, all in the name of justice.
Before the Second World War, France's Third Republic had the ideal of science being the ultimate guide to social development and social liberation. Where science and its technology led, then social orders of France must go.
Science was a power in the land and a very brutal and merciless power if you were one of the deviants the system was trying to eradicate. Scientific technocratic control was ubiquitous throughout France and consequently it was an important influence in the most intimate way on the young Foucault's life. As a homosexual he was in the cross hairs of this social control.
Then there are the other two influences shown in the book. The fascist takeover of France during the Second World War and the social revolution that occurred after its fall. Behrent shows how these elements were important and how they affected his work and life. Simply put what is power and what is liberation. Foucault felt deeply these events and would constantly come back to these experiences in his work.
By the end of the book Behrent brings you right there with Foucault as he begins his brilliant career, you feel the sense of disquiet Foucault feels as he tries to work through the confluence of those experiences to produce his great works on Madness, Power, Discipline and Sexuality. This is a great book to begin to understand Foucault. I highly recommend this book.
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