Kilian Harrer: George L. Mosse Reads Michel Foucault

Foucault Volonte 1976 0002

“‘Bourgeoisie’ instead of ‘state’ or ‘nation’ center here – old Marxist scheme.” This taut finger-wag of an annotation was written by George L. Mosse, like countless other comments, underlinings, and arrows—all preserved in the books of Mosse’s library, and gradually becoming accessible thanks to the ambitious Mosse Annotations Project (MAP).[1] The annotation I just quoted may not surprise Mosse blog readers familiar with what he thought about ‘old Marxist schemes’ in general. Is it any more surprising that those words sit on the margin of a page in Michel Foucault’s famous Histoire de la sexualité: La volonté de savoir? Perhaps not. Mosse and Foucault: two of the most important twentieth-century interpreters of European culture, two gay intellectuals sharing an interest in the history of sexuality. And yet there seems to be no story to tell about the two in conjunction, except the story of a distance, a missed encounter. Foucault died in 1984, just one year before Mosse published Nationalism and Sexuality, his first major inquiry into the history of masculinity and sexual politics. In turn, Mosse’s memoirs, Confronting History, never mention the name of the French philosopher-historian.

To my knowledge, in his numerous books and articles, Mosse cited Foucault’s work only three times, once each in Nationalism and Sexuality, The Image of Man, and Masses and Man. At least in the first two instances, the acknowledgement leans strongly toward criticism. Consider what Mosse wrote near the end of the introduction in Nationalism and Sexuality:

Michel Foucault maintained that the greater freedom of discourse about sexuality in the nineteenth century meant that the era was less obsessed with repressing sexuality than had been thought. From the latter part of the nineteenth century there was certainly more frank talk about sexuality than ever before, and what was considered abnormal penetrated closer to the surface of society. But Foucault’s conclusion would have been rejected by those contemporaries who were more often than not frustrated in their fight to wring even a few concessions from society.[2]

Here, it appears that Mosse looked askance at Foucault’s approach and what it might imply for our understanding of how the sexually marginalized experienced their own struggles. What’s more, I doubt whether Foucault would have even recognized himself in a critique of his work that contained the phrase ‘freedom of discourse.’ After all, while the Frenchman did attempt to debunk simplistic narratives of repression, his more basic aim was to sidestep the commonplace scale of repression versus permissiveness altogether. He focused his analysis instead on the use of sexuality as a sinister ‘deployment’ (dispositif) of modern bio-power, exercised through constant discursive prodding into the supposed hidden truth of sex. Foucault found this pressing out of truths—this ex-pression—more insidious than simple re-pression could ever be.

How thoroughly Mosse appreciated that approach remains uncertain. Rather forcefully, Lorenzo Benadusi and Giorgio Caravale have argued that Mosse kept his distance from “that current of historical study permeated by poststructuralism intent on deconstructing language and meanings, which is so often prone to excessive interpretation and anachronisms.”[3] How neatly this assessment dovetails with another annotation Mosse wrote into Histoire de la sexualité: “Absolutizing of power correct, but no historical perspective: polemic.” Such (perceived) lack of historical perspective stood at odds with the hermeneutical principle expressed by the philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) in one of Mosse’s favorite bits of wisdom: what man is, only history can tell.

Even as private men, Mosse and Foucault are easy to contrast. In 2003, essayist Fritz J. Raddatz published a moving review of the German translation of Mosse’s memoir in the newspaper Die Welt. Commenting on the chastity that the historian had avowedly practiced until fairly late in his life, Raddatz proclaimed his “bafflement.” After all, he went on, were not the Sixties “a time in which, for example, [Mosse’s] colleague Michel Foucault ‘experimented’ with San Francisco’s wildest gay orgies like exercises, in order to explore the boundaries of sexuality”?[4] In other words, there is a temptation to see an abyss between Foucault and Mosse, to associate the former with Sade’s outrageous Philosophy in the Bedroom and the latter with Goethe’s very respectable Italian Journey.

Foucault Volonte 1976 0001But perhaps we should not yield to this temptation. After all, there are profound affinities between the ways these two individuals viewed the past and their own experiences of ‘outsiderdom,’ as Mosse liked to call it. In fact, Mosse was sufficiently interested in Foucault the man to own copies of both the French original and the English translation of Didier Eribon’s biography, Michel Foucault (1926-1984). In the context of MAP, as Project Assistant with the George L. Mosse Program, I recently worked through these two copies as well as through that of Histoire de la sexualité. I found the English version of Eribon’s book apparently untouched, but it turned out that Mosse had read the first few chapters of the French original quite closely. There is a bookmark tucked between pages 64 and 65, and no annotations after these pages: did he simply get bored at that point? We will never know. At least, however, we can say that Eribon’s book intrigued Mosse enough to draw his attention to Foucault’s years as an adolescent and young adult attending the prestigious Parisian establishments of the lycée Henri-IV and the École normale supérieure.

Many of Mosse’s annotations give glimpses into what interested him on both an intimate and scholarly level, as he learned about Foucault’s younger years through Eribon’s descriptions. Mosse put a checkmark in the margins where Eribon quotes a doctor saying about Foucault’s suicidal tendencies as an undergraduate that “‘these troubles resulted from an extreme difficulty in experiencing and accepting his homosexuality.’ And in fact,” Eribon adds, “after returning from his frequent nocturnal expeditions to pickup hangouts or homosexual bars, Foucault would be prostrate for hours, ill, overwhelmed with shame.”[5]

Consider another checkmark from Mosse, next to a passage in which Eribon describes the strategies of gays who came of age before 1968, the generation both Mosse and Foucault belonged to. Like so many of that generation, Eribon remarks, the founder of the review Arcadie André Baudry (1922-2018) had been driven above all by “the hope of making homosexuality ‘acceptable’ by dint of discretion, respectability, and what he called ‘dignity.’”[6] Eribon’s words strangely echo the last sentence of Mosse’s introduction in Nationalism and Sexuality: “even feminists, homosexuals, and lesbians proclaimed their adherence to the basic norms and stereotypes of respectability, wanting only to bend the bars of their cage, not to unhinge them.”[7] Foucault may have been more interested in ‘unhinging’ his world than Mosse, but both refused to resort to ‘confessions’ as a way of grappling with their sexuality. “Everything needs to be said” about sex, Foucault wrote sarcastically about the Catholic sacrament of penance. Mosse, Foucault’s reader, underlined these words and nodded in the margins, writing: “Counter-Reformation.”[8]

Thus I come back to the specific issue of Mosse encountering the first volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality. What one could never guess from Mosse’s sparse citations of La volonté de savoir is the sheer intensity with which he followed Foucault’s analysis. Over the past eleven months, I have checked every page of more than five hundred books once owned by George Mosse, in my work on the Mosse Annotation Project (MAP). At this point, I can name only three other authors with whom he engaged as attentively as he did with Foucault: Max Weber (specifically his Protestant Ethic), the great Italian historian of fascism Renzo De Felice, and Charles Howard McIlwain, who had served as Mosse’s doctoral adviser at Harvard. Out of the 219 pages of La volonté de savoir, Mosse annotated 127, that is, fifty-eight percent. In addition to making hundreds of underlinings, checkmarks, and marginal lines, Mosse also penciled numerous short written reflections in the pages of his copy.

Moreover, by no means do these reflections only—or even primarily—betray disagreement with Foucault’s arguments. To be sure, Mosse distrusted the residues of Marxist thought that, he believed, Foucault continued to drag along in the 1970s. In the top margin of page 162, Mosse dryly noted that “Marxist clichés must be taken into account in France.” Yet, in the same section of the book, Mosse wrote “yes”—an annotation I have encountered very rarely while working on MAP—next to Foucault’s claim “that sexuality is originally, historically bourgeois and that it induces, in its successive shifts and its transpositions, specific effects of class.”[9] Another ‘yes’ on the page across from the inside cover of the book, where Mosse wrote down a handful of longer and general comments: “Yes, sex part not of traditional legal power (120) but of symbolism and myth of new politics.” Such annotations bring to light something that Mosse’s published criticism of Foucault easily obscures: some parts of the Frenchman’s work resonated strongly with Mosse as he explored both the links and the tensions between bourgeois respectability and the rise of mass politics with its powerful symbols and liturgies. He revisited these links and tensions throughout his later career, while shifting his primary focus from the origins of Nazism to the making of modern masculinity.

Even when Mosse wrote “no” in the margins of La volonté de savoir, as he did six times, he was sometimes repudiating arguments that Foucault recounted only to discard. For example, the French philosopher famously criticized concepts of power which presupposed that power could only repress and ‘say no to’ sex and ‘perverse’ sexualities. In the margins next to Foucault’s summary of such concepts, Mosse commented: “no: to co-opt.”[10] Both thinkers confronted and comprehended the uncanny ways in which ‘norms of respectability’ (Mosse) or ‘discursive formations’ (Foucault) have enabled the social control of bodies and sexual practices—with control variously taking the routes of classification, exclusion, and co-optation. In other words, Mosse’s and Foucault’s analyses of power differed less than their divergent scholarly backgrounds and reference points might make us believe.

Foucault Volonte 1976 0006Foucault Volonte 1976 0075More generally, both shared the ambition to look behind the façades of institutions when digging for the origins of violence in modern Europe. Both wanted to overcome what Foucault called “l’institutionnalocentrisme[11] of more traditional scholarly approaches to state power. Both hoped to understand the deeper currents that animated and sometimes colonized institutions. They identified these currents differently: as governmentality with its pastoral mode of exercising power (late Foucault), as völkisch ideology (Mosse in the 1960s), or as civil religion with its liturgies, rituals, and symbols (Mosse in the 1970s).[12] These parallels are not to claim that Mosse and Foucault essentially did the same thing. For example, Mosse noted in his copy of La volonté de savoir that Foucault “has no concept of importance of nation for bourgeoisie,” and maybe Mosse set out to write Nationalism and Sexuality in part to flesh out this criticism. Such differences matter. They reflect a more general divergence that anyone would expect to find between a ‘liberal’ German-Jewish-American historian and a ‘postmodernist’ French philosopher. But their shared intuitions and argumentative frameworks matter just as much: both analyzed how the power of respectability flows beneath and beyond as well as within institutions, and how it flows through bodies and sex, not just against them. Anyone with a capacious vision of cultural history should find ample opportunity to bring Mosse and Foucault in productive dialogue.

Relating to each other the intellectual biographies and work of George L. Mosse and Michel Foucault reveals links that reached far beyond common research interests. Foucault may never have gotten a chance to acquaint himself with Mosse’s writings, but the latter took the former’s History of Sexuality extremely seriously. Mosse’s later works, particularly Nationalism and Sexuality and The Image of Man, offer deeper and more sympathetic resonances with Foucauldian provocations and insights than mere citations will tell. The Annotation Project will continue to provide evidence that can substantiate this kind of argument: over the coming years, Mosse Program staff will transcribe and publish handwritten checkmarks and comments from more and more books that used to belong to Mosse’s personal library. Eventually, the MAP database will enable many unique insights into the intellectual engagements and reading practices of one of the twentieth century’s most important historians.

[1] For their encouragements, critical comments, and helpful suggestions, I would like to thank Adi Armon, Paul Breines, Suzanne Desan, Skye Doney, Mary Louise Roberts, and John Tortorice.
[2] George L. Mosse, Nationalism and Sexuality: Respectability and Abnormal Sexuality in Modern Europe (New York: Howard Fertig, 1985), 21-22. The other, very similar instance is in Mosse, The Image of Man: The Creation of Modern Masculinity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 204. The third citation reads as follows: “The emergence of population as an economic and political problem did not merely broaden the discourse about sexuality, as Michael [sic] Foucault has noted, it encouraged the nation to act as a guardian of sexual normalcy and moderation.” George L. Mosse, “Introduction: Nationalism and Human Perceptions,” in Masses and Man: Nationalist and Fascist Perceptions of Reality (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987).
[3] Benadusi and Caravale, “Introduction,” in George L. Mosse’s Italy: Interpretation, Reception, and Intellectual Heritage, ed. Benadusi and Caravale (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 1-9, here 3.
[4] Fritz J. Raddatz, “Aus der Prunk- und Protzhölle: Der Historiker George L. Mosse geht in seiner Autobiografie sehr kritisch mit seiner Herkunftsfamilie um,“ Die Welt, October 18, 2003. What Raddatz misses here is that the Sixties did play a major role in Mosse’s sexual awakening, especially in the context of his travels abroad.
[5] Didier Eribon, Michel Foucault (1926-1984), 2nd ed. (Paris: Flammarion, 1991), 44. Quoted after Betsy Wing’s translation in Eribon, Michel Foucault (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992), 26-7.
[6] Ibid., 47 (French original)/29 (English translation).
[7] Mosse, Nationalism and Sexuality, 22.
[8] Michel Foucault, Histoire de la sexualité: La volonté de savoir (Paris: Gallimard, 1976), 28. Cf. also Mosse’s marginal annotation to ibid., 80: “confessions part of state and church power.”
[9] Ibid., 168.
[10] Ibid., 110.
[11] Michel Foucault, Sécurité, territoire, population: Cours au Collège de France, 1977-1978 (Paris: Gallimard/Seuil, 2004), 120.
[12] Mosse published The Crisis of German Ideology in 1964 and The Nationalization of the Masses in 1975.

Kilian Harrer, Mosse Program PA 2017-2018
Kilian Harrer, Mosse Program PA 2017-2018

Kilian Harrer, the 2017-2018 Project Assistant of the George L. Mosse Program, is a doctoral student in the History Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He holds a B.A. and M.A. in history from the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Germany. His research interests revolve around the complicated relationship of religion and politics in eighteenth-century Europe (from the Enlightenment through the age of Napoleon). In his second year at UW, he focused on a conflict over diocesan territory between the archbishop of Rouen and a convent of Benedictine nuns, the Abbey of Montivilliers in Normandy. He is currently doing research for a dissertation on pilgrims, processions, and police in European borderlands, c. 1770-1815.

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