Students at AULA run into Michel Foucault all the time… I mean, not literally. They come across his work in philosophy, literature, and social sciences classes, and certainly as a part of the queer studies minor concentration. David Tripp, co-director (along with Charley Lang) of the concentration, and former Program Chair of the BA program is currently acting as the conduit through which Foucault’s ideas and methods of thinking are illuminated for students more fully. “His work is really weird,” Tripp says, “it’s impossible to categorize, yet he’s influenced all of these fields [medicine, social sciences, psychology, demographics, etc.] in huge ways.”
Foucault, the uncategorizable intellectual who “formed the foundation out of which modern queer theory emerged,” has been described as a philosopher, a historian, a literary critic, and a social theorist. He was born in Poitiers, France in 1926; and died in June of 1984 of neurological problems compounded by HIV/ AIDS. His Histoire de la sexualité, or History of Sexuality Volume 1 (published in 1976) was essential reading for AIDS activists in the 1980s during the peak of the crisis and helped the movement to redefine and mobilize concepts of power and resistance.
Prior to arriving at AULA in 1989, Tripp was deeply involved in AIDS activism in Los Angeles. He describes a dear friend whom he met while completing his doctoral work at USC, who contracted the virus, went home to Alabama, and died shortly thereafter. “I wasn’t able to help… it just didn’t feel right,” he said. Tripp’s sense of grief and powerlessness led him to attend a meeting to discuss a community response to the growing crisis, which was held at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena. In response to a man attending the meeting who had HIV and expressed a need for help, a therapist in the room formed a support group on the spot, with Tripp and the priest who was hosting the meeting, as her co-facilitators. The following week they had five persons show up, and a couple of months later there were hundreds of people in attendance. They formed groups not only for people with AIDS, but also for families, partners, and medical caregivers.
Intrinsic to the style of organizing that became successful for AIDS activists were Foucault’s complex models of power in which power is viewed as a web rather than a binary system as it had been traditionally. In this perspective, power is not something you possess, it’s relational by nature; and so organizers were able to make change by “distributing activist energies,” and addressing issues on all levels. They did petition the government for policy change, but they also formed support groups, took steps to educate healthcare workers, landlords, business owners, city councils, worked to de-stigmatize HIV/AIDS shifting it from being seen as a gay problem to being a human problem, lobbied pharmaceutical companies to make drugs more available for patients, and much, much more.
At the beginning of Foucault: Discourse & Discipline, which began as a 1 unit workshop and is now a 400 level course, Tripp warns his students that they will not be the same when the course is over. The class has a reputation for being challenging, and not just because there is a great deal of primary source material reading. “Sometime around week six they drag themselves in,” he says, “often they get a briefcase of near-terminal depression.” And yes, he chuckles when he says this. He goes on to say that the class often has a transformational effect on people. Once introduced to Foucault’s ideas and engaged in his complex models of thinking, people can’t help seeing the world differently. “This class becomes a continuing part of the student’s consciousness going forward.”
If that freaks you out a little, consider this:
Tripp’s favorite thing about Foucault is that he was not (and is not in his immortal work) prescriptive. He believes that many students strongly resonate with this concept. “He [Foucault] was a philosopher of the otherwise,” Tripp says, “he created a toolbox full of pretty cool tools, which we can choose to use or not use.” He then goes on to relay a teaching story in which we are all goldfish swimming around in a bowl, and while we can’t leave the water without dying, we sometimes get to jump up and catch a clear view of our situation for just a moment…