The culmination of Lasch and Foucault’s relationship came at the University of Vermont in 1982, by which time Foucault, with an appointment at UC Berkeley, had become a star in American academia. Lasch was one of several scholars invited to comment on Foucault’s work during a three-week period in which Foucault himself gave a series of lectures, “Technologies of the Self.” Foucault attributed their inspiration to Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism (1979), in which Lasch had argued that anxious individuals, deprived of economic security and cultural bonds, were investing their self-image, and therapeutic projects of self-discovery, with unprecedented importance.
Foucault perhaps was flattering his hosts, but his intellectual trajectory had indeed taken a parallel turn with that of Lasch. In his final lecture, Foucault noted that while his early work tracked how institutions like asylums, hospitals, and prisons—and bodies of knowledge like psychiatry, medicine, and criminology—define “who we are” by excluding the abnormal, his work following History of Sexuality focused on how individuals come to understand themselves in consultation with a range of supposed experts of self-knowledge. Foucault worked from a broad perspective—tracking such expertise from the philosophers of classical Athens to priests in late antiquity to psychiatrists today—and avoided Lasch’s more personal focus on how modern narcissism makes us miserable. But the two had a common sense of the problem.
By 1991, however, seven years after Foucault’s death, and three years before his own, Lasch dismissed the French thinker, whose influence he had spread and whom he in turn had influenced. In an article for Salmagundi, to which he often contributed, titled “Academic Pseudo-Radicalism: the Charade of Subversion,” Lasch attributed to Foucault the claim that “knowledge of any kind is purely a function of power.” In thus crediting to Foucault a position so obviously self-defeating that it is hard to imagine any thinker holding it, Lasch failed to notice a convergence between the work of his late period and that of Foucault’s a decade earlier.
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