Paul Breines: Reflecting on George Mosse’s Reading of Michel Foucault: A Response, Part I

Following Kilian Harrer’s post, historian Paul Breines, one of Mosse’s PhD students, offers his insight into Mosse’s annotations and interpretations.

George L. Mosse in his library at 36 Glenway
George L. Mosse in his library at 36 Glenway

Among the readers of Kilian Harrer’s “George L. Mosse Reads Michel Foucault,” will be those who, like me, were George’s graduate students, which meant that we had the opportunity to have been in his remarkable house and study at 36 Glenway, in Madison, and thus were able, on occasion, with a volume or two, to do what Harrer has done, only far less systematically and insightfully: examine George’s notations in the margins of his books. Little did we, and little did George, know that his penciled comments, initially part of what historians call secondary sources, would morph into primary sources, documents, of historical research.

So, I can’t imagine that I am alone among us in feeling grateful to Harrer for his superb blog post which, among its other achievements, prompts tender recollections of the feel of George’s books in one’s hand, and, if you go way back, with traces of the fragrance of his “Three Nuns” pipe tobacco in one’s nostrils, and of the strong desire, somehow, to imbibe it all. For this reader, Harrer’s interpretation of George’s annotations on Foucault’s History of Sexuality (and on Didier Eribon’s biography) has been thrilling, evoking the sweetest of remembrances of things past, and a momentary respite from unrelenting current events.

The recollections, however, in turn inspire regret that when, as a guest in his house I had the chance to do so, I didn’t look through George’s copies of Foucault’s sexuality book, or of Eribon’s; and I regret still more that I didn’t discuss Foucault at any length with George, even after Nationalism and Sexuality, with its three critical sentences on Foucault’s book to which Harrer attends, was published in 1985. Those of Mosse’s students who have incorporated Foucault’s works into their own, Robert Nye, for example, or Anson Rabinbach, must have had such discussions with George, and will, I imagine, have much to say on the issues at hand.

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Nationalism and Sexuality advertisement

But, Harrer, a stellar participant in the Mosse Annotation Project, has eloquently and vitally opened the discussion of Mosse and Foucault, together, a discussion grounded in his examination of the annotations George made in the margins of The History of Sexuality, vol. 1 when he first read it, soon after its publication in France in 1976. Harrer also treats us to some fine writing. His opening words, for example, are splendid: “This taut finger-wag of an annotation was written by George L. Mosse…”

In spite of George’s disinterest in the so-called post-structuralist theorizing of which Foucault’s work was a significant part, and the apparent “abyss” between their ways of thinking, Harrer suggests that his annotations in the margins of Foucault’s text nevertheless clearly suggest that George “took The History of Sexuality extremely seriously.” “Mosse’s later works,” Harrer continues, “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.”        

“Resonances with Foucauldian provocations and insights.” It’s a thoughtful formulation and more than adequate to the delicate argument Harrer wants to develop. He employs the term, resonance, a second time when he notes that at least “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.” Alongside “resonances,” key for Harrer is the phrase “shared intuitions and argumentative frameworks,” and the terms, “parallels” and “conjunction.” He notably avoids the term “influence.”

With the preceding terminology note in mind, I want to reconstruct some of Harrer’s argument, beginning with his sketch of the resonances that he sees. As Harrer writers, “both [authors] 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” of more traditional scholarly approaches to state power. Both hoped to understand the deeper currents that animated and sometimes colonized institutions.” To be sure, Harrer adds, Foucault and Mosse “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).” Further clarifying his interpretation, Harrer indicates that “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,” an annotation that prompts Harrer to suggest that “maybe Mosse set out to write Nationalism and Sexuality in part to flesh out this criticism.”

“Such differences matter,” Harrer emphasizes; “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,” he highlights, Mosse’s and Foucault’s “shared intuitions and argumentative frameworks matter just as much: both insisted on analyzing 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.”

The most winning part of Harrer’s post is  the evidence he presents for his resonances/parallels thesis, namely, the annotations, and, as Harrer stresses, they show us  “the sheer intensity with which [Mosse] followed Foucault’s analysis.” In a wonderful passage reporting on his finding from examination of over five hundred books in George’s library, Harrer indicates that only works by Max Weber, Renzo De Felice, and Charles Howard McIlwain compelled George’s annotating attention to the degree that Foucault’s book did, informing us as well that George annotated 127 of the 219 pages of La volonte de savoir. I loved reading those paragraphs. Harrer’s fascination with Mosse’s engagement with Foucault is infectious; it prompts me to imagine George at his desk, his cat, Guido, in his lap, jotting down one of his few marginal “Yeses,” or one of the six “Nos.” Also to miss him sorely.

I want, then, to look briefly at the “Yes” and the “No” that Harrer discusses because he and I differ regarding what they demonstrate, which will lead me to an alternative interpretation of what might have transpired when Mosse read Foucault. Obviously, I admire Harrer’s post immensely for so bringing the Foucault-Mosse connection to light, and because, as in the passage that follows, he so effectively evokes images of George intensively working on Foucault’s book, capturing the drama of it: “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.”

To me, however, Mosse’s “Yes” is fascinating because, in what follows it, something funny happens. First, we have “sex not part of traditional legal power,” which I take to be a clear reference to a now more or less widely recognized thesis of Foucault’s sexuality book, but, then, in the next clause, where one expects to read something Foucauldian, such as, “but is effect of power in its discursive mode,” we get, instead, something Mossean – “but of symbolism and myth of new politics.” The latter phrase is clearly not a reference to anything in Foucault’s book, but, rather, and surprisingly, to a now more or less widely recognized thesis of Nationalism and Sexuality regarding the centrality of “symbolism and myth of new politics.”

In this instance, George appears to have misread Foucault – a matter I will return to – but in a distinctive and creative way. As the annotation I cite just above suggests, when George peered into La volonté de savoir, he didn’t find Foucault; he found Nationalism and Sexuality. This was not because he was incapable of grasping poststructuralist thinking. Rather,  in the late 1970s he was intensely focused fairly on putting together what I think he knew was likely to be a transformative work of his own on the topic of sexuality and nationalism, which wasn’t a topic before his study appeared; the study created the topic.

His book project, it seems to me, was in full effect when, and as, George read Foucault; it shaped, even dominated, his reading of the latter’s book, as if George’s interpretive vision, his insight, was sufficiently powerful as to be accompanied by a specific blindness. Yet, I also think that Harrer is cogent when he speculates about George perhaps having sensed, as he read Foucault, that his own project would make good Foucault’s failure to grasp the importance of the nation (and nationalism) to the bourgeoisie.

In the “No” annotation that Harrer examines we again glimpse George reading his own themes into Foucault. “Even when Mosse wrote ‘no’ in the margins of La volonté de savoir, as he did six times,” Harrer tells us, “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’.”

As I read the annotation, with his “No,” George implicitly indicates agreement with, not rejection of, Foucault’s claim that power’s relation to sex is not simply one of repression, not simply negative. Notably, however, George doesn’t explore the implications of doing so; I try to explore them below. Instead, once again, when he reads La volonté de savoir, while at work on Nationalism and Sexuality, George doesn’t find Foucauldian themes, but, instead, a central – and in this instance proto-Foucauldian – theme in his own thinking: that sex is not simply repressed or negated by power (in the form of the nation-state, respectability, and nationalism).

Yet, I’m proposing that the pieces of La volonté de savoir that George might have ingested in his reading of it are not pieces of Foucault, but, rather, pieces of Nationalism and Sexuality in-the-making that George read into La volonté de savoir. As I see it, the paradox is only apparent; the reading-into is precisely the form of the resonance to which Harrer calls our attention.

The “No: to co-opt” annotation is also followed by two especially insightful sentences: “Both thinkers confronted and comprehended the 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 makes us believe.”

Foucault Volonte 1976 0075

Differed less, of course, even than Mosse himself believed. Indeed, as we have seen, Harrer proposes that George’s marginal notes in his copy of Foucault’s sexuality book, and the three sentences of criticism of it in the Introduction to Nationalism and Sexuality, tell different stories. This is central to Harrer’s interpretation. The “annotations bring to light,” he contends, “something that Mosse’s published criticism of Foucault easily obscures: that some [Italics in original] parts of the Frenchman’s work resonated strongly with Mosse…”

Here, then, are George’s three sentences on The History of Sexuality, vol. 1 from the Introduction to 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.”

With such remarks, Harrer writes, “it appears that Mosse looked skeptically upon 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’.”

And that, I believe, is a big deal. It points to something amiss in George’s reading of Foucault’s book. In all three of the sentences of criticism, he seriously misreads La volonté de savoir. As Harrer notes, moreover, Mosse finds too much Marxism in La volonté de savoir, but seems not to notice the books several biting, and fundamental, criticisms of the sex liberation Marxists of the late 1960s. This raises the question: How could someone as brilliant and erudite as Mosse have done that? What follows is  my attempt at a probably obsessively detailed response.

As Harrer points out, in George’s first critical sentence and again in his reference to Foucault in Masses and Man that Harrer cites, George uses the term, “discourse,” as if it were simply a synonym for speech, which, of course, it can be. But, as Harrer highlights, the post-structuralist (and Foucault’s) use of the term, discourse, as the discursive/linguistic production, or back formation, of objects or relations in the world isn’t familiar to George; it didn’t command his attention, and might not have made sense to him.

The second sentence entails a cluster of misreadings, suggesting further unfamiliarity or incomprehension of Foucault on George’s part: “there was certainly more frank talk about sexuality than ever before, and what was considered abnormal penetrated closer to the surface of society.” Here, it seems to me, George grants what he imagines is part of Foucault’s point, except that it isn’t at all. On the contrary, Foucault aims many of his most critical and nasty darts at precisely the late nineteenth century emergence of a new, and purportedly brave, science of sex, sexology, the very “frank” talk about sex that George evokes. He seems, moreover, to imply that Foucault views the new, frank sex talk as progress in Enlightenment, as if Foucault had been a devotee of such talk, and of the Enlightenment, together with Freud.

But that is nearly the opposite of Foucault’s argument that the apparently “frank talk” about sex that emerged in the West toward the close of the nineteenth century, was a new phase of power’s immense, centuries-long transformation of sex into speech, the grand speechification of sex, the extensive eliciting of talk about sex, all in the name of its repression. George’s formulation, “what was considered abnormal penetrated closer to the surface of society,” is, again, not what Foucault discloses, which is, rather, the production by power, through discourses, of a “perverse implantation” of sexual abnormalities, a social construction of bodies, and sexual identities, whose function is to extend and deepen society’s control of the population. To me it’s fascinating that George doesn’t remark on the affinity between Foucault’s contention and what George himself was unveiling in his book manuscript.

The third of George’s three sentences on Foucault appears to me to be his firm, even biting, rejection of what he believes Foucault’s interpretation boils down to: that the modern West had become “less obsessed with repressing sexuality than had previously been thought.” But, again, that’s not Foucault’s thesis. The latter doesn’t deny that all manner of taboos were placed on sex, that prohibitions were announced, that punishments for improper speech and behavior were doled out. Nor does Foucault deny that contemporaries (around 1900) were more often than not frustrated in the fight to wring even a few concessions from society. Foucault contends, however, that it is nevertheless a mistake to view relations between power and sex entirely through the lens of repression. Doing so ignores the ways in which power brings into being new sexualities, new sex scientists, with their “will to knowledge,” and their new classifications, all the better to administer bodies and behaviors.

Paul BreinesPaul Breines taught European Intellectual History at Boston College from 1975 to 2010. His last ten years there, inspired by George Mosse, he also taught an introductory course on “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Straight History in the West, 1895 – 2000.” He edited the essay collection, Critical Interruptions: New Left Essays on Herbert Marcuse (1970); co-authored with Andrew Arato, The Young Lukacs and the Origins of Western Marxism (1980); and authored Tough Jews: Political Fantasies and the Moral Dilemma of American Jewry (1990). In July of 1961, having taken Professor Mosse’s  Modern Europe survey (the already renown “History 3”), which focused on the theme of intellectuals engaged in political action, he participated, as did several other U.W. students, in the 1961 Freedom Rides to Jackson, Mississippi. The photos accompanying his comments on Killian Harder’s post are from Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders (2008). Obviously, one is a mug shot, one of the few such of Mosse students; the other is more recent, and unincarcerated.

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