Foucault in the Valley of Death

The philosopher found bliss in a desert drug trip - his friend was ostracized for life

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The first time that Simeon Wade read Michel Foucault was in a graduate seminar at Harvard in the 1960s. Madness and Civilization had been translated into English in 1965, and the book excited Wade, who had been vice president of the Baptist student union at the College of William and Mary only a few years earlier. But it was The Order of Things, a bestseller in France upon its publication in 1966, that caused the young Marxist to “discard Hegelianism,” as he later explained, for the humanistic “equivalent of Watson and Crick’s analysis of the double helix.” Wade earned a doctorate in the intellectual history of Western civilization in 1968, writing a thesis on “The Idea of Luxury in Eighteenth-Century England,” and after teaching in Boston for a couple of years, hitched a ride with his fraternity brother Jet Thomas, who had officiated the wedding of Gram Parsons, to California, where Thomas owned a cabin on Mount Baldy.

On an apparent whim, Wade secured a tenure-track position as assistant professor in history at Claremont Graduate School, a respected if somewhat obscure research institution thirty miles east of Los Angeles, in a retirement Mecca for members of the Congregational Church. Wade had surprised his family around 1973 by announcing over the phone that he was gay, and on Thanksgiving 1974, he met a young composer named Michael Stoneman in a West Hollywood bathhouse. The two fell quickly in love. At the age of thirty-five, Wade was at his peak: only a few years after Stonewall, he lived openly with his boyfriend in a house on the edge of campus where the two threw legendary parties, taking turns at the grand piano.

Foucault had what Wade calls “the greatest experience of his life” in May 1975 at Zabriskie Point in Death Valley, when at Wade and Stoneman’s behest, the philosopher ate a tab of medical-grade LSD. Foucault was then a visiting professor in the French department at UC Berkeley, and for five years had been chair in “history of systems of thought” at the Collège de France, a post so prestigious that he taught no formal classes. His eighth book, Surveiller et punir (later translated as Discipline and Punish), had just been published by Éditions Gallimard. On the same day that he finished Discipline and Punish, Foucault, in the manner of a philosophical Balzac, began the first installment of the multivolume History of Sexuality that would remain unfinished at the time of his death, from AIDS, in 1984. The final book, Les Aveux de la chair, appeared posthumously in France last year (a Penguin translation, Confessions of the Flesh, is scheduled for 2020), but Foucault had initially conceived of the series as a thematic history in six parts, with a volume each on the four “subjects” of sexuality as he saw them then: the hysterical woman, the masturbating child, the Malthusian couple, and the perverse adult. Wade believed that Foucault’s trip in Death Valley changed the direction and scope of the philosopher’s work, one of the most influential projects of twentieth-century thought. Others disagree.

Sons of the Desert

At the center of this dispute is Wade’s memoir, Foucault in California, which was begun not long after the events it describes but published only this year, by Heyday Books. In a comic voice that evokes Charles Kinbote, the unreliable narrator of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, and Ignatius J. Reilly, whose erudition marks him the fool of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, Wade recounts in precise detail the time he spent with Foucault in the days after the Fall of Saigon. Borrowing from the literary genre of the philosophical dialogue, Foucault in California is at times a gay, psychedelic Divine Comedy and at others a Plato’s Symposium for the 1970s. Bookended by lush photographs of a hirsute Stoneman and hairless Foucault, the latter in a white turtleneck and aviators that make him resemble, in Wade’s words, “the child of Kojak and Elton John,” the narrative is the length of a novella and best read as one, given Wade’s adherence to the MFA mantra, “Show, don’t tell.” After hearing a rumor that Foucault is to lecture in California, Wade telephones the Berkeley French department, who gives him Foucault’s address in Paris. He writes Foucault, who responds to Wade’s first letter, but not his second. A few weeks later, Wade learns that his idol is coming to UC Irvine, an hour’s drive south from Claremont: “The news immediately sent my pulse racing. I would confront him face-to-face.” Seeing him in person for the first time, Wade is not shy about the erotic charge of his obsession: “His white bell-bottom trousers fit him closely around the pelvis and thighs. He looked like an athlete rather than an academic. Obviously he did not spend all his time crouched over a desk.” Pushing through a crowd of handlers, it is Stoneman who grabs Foucault’s attention, and over the phone the following week, the philosopher agrees to speak with a small group of Wade’s students at Claremont and visit, as he calls it, “the Valley of Death.”

Foucault had what Simeon Wade calls “the greatest experience of his life” in May 1975 at Zabriskie Point in Death Valley.

Several weeks later, after an evening of tequila sunrises, Scriabin sonatas, marijuana, and literary conversation, the three men leave for the desert at dawn. “We brought along a powerful elixir, a kind of philosopher’s stone Michael happened upon,” Wade tells his guest. “We thought you might enjoy a visionary quest in Death Valley.” “I can hardly wait to get started,” Foucault says, though nobody takes any acid for twenty more pages. Instead, we hear a gossipy discourse on cinema (“Godard is a political bitch!”), academia (“Lévi-Strauss is a very conservative man. And sometimes he behaves very badly”), and sex: “Do you masturbate?” Stoneman asks, to which Foucault responds “‘Of course, Michael.’ . . . without hesitation.”

The trio’s destination, Zabriskie Point, was the very spot that had provided Michelangelo Antonioni with the setting and title of his 1970 hippie movie, which Pauline Kael panned as a “pathetic mess” in The New Yorker, assuming that the Italian was “baffled by America and it all got away from him.” If Antonioni was guilty of being an aging European intellectual belatedly drawn to the American counterculture’s image of youth in revolt, he wasn’t the only one. In November 1975, Foucault crossed paths with his colleagues Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari at Semiotext(e)’s “Schizo-Culture” conference at Columbia University, the latter two having journeyed across the Atlantic to see for themselves: They met Allen Ginsberg backstage at Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue in Lowell, Massachusetts, Jack Kerouac’s hometown, before flying to California, where they visited Patti Smith in Berkeley, Lawrence Ferlinghetti in San Francisco, and Henry Miller in Big Sur. At almost the same time, Jean Baudrillard embarked from San Diego on a theoretical road trip he later chronicled in 1986’s America, in whose deserts, both ecological and semiotic, he found a hyperreal “microcosm of the West,” and at Disneyland, saw “a parody of the world of the imagination.” In Death Valley, Baudrillard writes, “everything human is artificial.”

It appears that Foucault drew different conclusions. Over several hours, he and his companions take in the Mojave vistas, drink chartreuse, listen to Stockhausen, and emit the aphoristic bits of pseudo-wisdom that hallucinogens are known for prompting: “Music is our theology,” “The sky has exploded and the stars are raining down upon me. I know this is not true, but it is the Truth.” At one point, there is an argument over whether the car doors should stay open or closed. With “tears streaming from his eyes,” Foucault declares, “Tonight I have achieved a fresh perspective on myself. I now understand my sexuality. It all seems to start with my sister. We must go home again.”

Fourteen years older than Wade, an Alabama native raised in Louisiana and Texas, Foucault grew up two hundred miles southwest of Paris, in Poitiers, which was occupied by Nazis in 1940, the same year his mother enrolled him in Catholic school. While Wade spent his youth attending Sunday school and rehearsing Rachmaninoff, Foucault’s adolescence was much lonelier. Plagued by depression and familial pressure to imitate his father, a surgeon, Foucault rebelled, excelling in the liberal arts, which led him to the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, where he studied psychology and philosophy. Although the topics of his early writing—madness and mental illness, order, reason, and “the medical gaze”—point on their surface to the circumstances of Foucault’s upbringing, critics have been hesitant to read his work biographically ever since his 1969 essay “What Is an Author?” which, building on Roland Barthes’s “The Death of the Author,” argues against biographical criticism in favor of a more discursive understanding of the “author function.” It’s unlikely that his sister had much to do with it, but Foucault was at that moment, broadly speaking, at a turning point. The ideas of “late Foucault” would unfold in lectures, interviews, media appearances, and political activism as much as in books, expanding the conceptual vocabulary of contemporary discourse in the social sciences and humanities: governmentality, biopower, and the “repressive hypothesis” he was then in the process of repudiating. “For a long time, the story goes, we supported a Victorian regime,” Foucault begins the first volume of The History of Sexuality. In our hypocritical prudishness, “we continue to be dominated by it even today.”

Not high enough to astrally project to his bourgeois childhood in Vichy France, Foucault sobers up in a motel room before going home with Stoneman and Wade, where his hosts throw a party in his honor, and the next day, they hike Mount Baldy. Foucault communes with Wade’s Taoist friends, quasi-academic bohemians who dwell in cabins on the trails of Bear Canyon; they flirt, asking questions about Merleau-Ponty and the men in Brazil. At Claremont, Foucault leads Wade’s students in a seminar, a transcript of which is reproduced in the manuscript. On the way to the nearby airport in Ontario, CA, Foucault tells his friends, “You live in paradise here.” Wade replies,

“Given the unsavory politics in this crummy university, it may become paradise lost for us. In any case, I intend to hold to my persuasion that the role of the teacher has to change. In response to events, your work, and my own personal development, I have become very involved with my students, in a few cases even intimately. I do not conceal my personal life or convictions from my students, and I make every attempt to connect my life with my teaching.”

“Yes,” Foucault responded, “it is the only way.”

The Part about the Critics

For decades, Foucault’s LSD trip was little more than an obscure footnote to the annals of drug lore and intellectual history. But for those living at the intersection of that Venn diagram, it was a big fucking deal.

James Penner, author of Pinks, Pansies, and Punks and editor of Timothy Leary: The Harvard Years, considers the event one of the “famous” philosophical drug trips: “There’s [Aldous] Huxley in ’53 in the Hollywood Hills with mescaline, there’s Leary in Cuernavaca with magic mushrooms in 1960, and there’s Foucault in Death Valley in 1975.” One could add to this list Walter Benjamin with hashish in Marseille in 1927 and Jean-Paul Sartre, also with mescaline (not to mention a lifetime of amphetamine use), in 1935. By the time Jacques Derrida was arrested on drug trafficking charges in Czechoslovakia in 1982, the trope of philosopher-as-pharmaceutical-conquistador was already a cliché, even if Martin Heidegger hadn’t actually dropped acid, as some apocrypha have it, with fellow Nazi author Ernst Jünger, whose experiments with the drug’s inventor, Albert Hofmann, are recorded in the scientist’s 1979 memoir, LSD: My Problem Child. When he was a doctoral student at the University of Southern California, Penner read about the trip in James Miller’s The Passion of Michel Foucault, which appeared alongside two other biographies published in the wake of Foucault’s death, though its author prefers to think of the book as “a biographical interpretation.” Miller was the first writer to give the story much attention: there’s no mention of LSD or Wade in Didier Eribon’s Michel Foucault. Englishman David Macey’s The Lives of Michel Foucault, reissued by Verso this year, acknowledges the sojourn, but dismisses its relevance:

Rumours abound about the acid trip; this is one of those Foucault stories that everyone seems to know. Reports from those who claim that he told them that it changed his life should probably be treated with some scepticism; the insights granted by LSD tend to be short-lived and illusory rather than real.

Miller, the American biographer, first heard of the Death Valley trip while doing preliminary research in California. A professor at the New School and author, most recently, of Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea, From Ancient Athens to Today, Miller had attended Claremont’s sister college, Pomona, in the late 1960s, and was able to track Wade down through Jet Thomas, a mutual acquaintance. Wade gave Miller a copy of his manuscript, which Miller quoted from at length. Justifying his decision to take Wade’s account as gospel, Miller writes that for Wade, the Death Valley trip was “the experience of a lifetime; he took mental notes throughout, as well as written notes; and so did his lover, Michael, with whom Wade still lives.” Despite concluding, in agreement, that “Foucault’s visit to California changed his life,” as well as his “thinking about sex and sexuality,” Miller says that when Wade read the book, he was “devastated.”

Borrowing from the literary genre of the philosophical dialogue, Foucault in California is at times a gay, psychedelic Divine Comedy and at others a Plato’s Symposium for the 1970s.

One possible reason for this is the implied conclusion of Miller’s biographical interpretation, which makes more of the philosopher’s sexuality than his drug use, neither of which were confined to Foucault’s stay in California. At the same time that Foucault discovered LSD, he was beginning to immerse himself in the S&M scene in San Francisco. In ball gags, glory holes, fist-fucking, and leather, Miller found a convenient lens through which to read Foucault’s concept of the “limit-experience,” as well as a strikingly visual chain of signifiers to represent the philosophical tradition in which he located Foucault: a Franco-German mix of thinkers fascinated by sex and death, from Sade and Nietzsche through Heidegger and founding editor of Critique, Georges Bataille, in whose pages can be found the beginnings of what is now called, mostly by Anglo-Americans, “French Theory.” For Miller, the risk of anonymous sex at the dawn of the AIDS era was the natural culmination of Foucault’s intellectual fixation on power as well as his personal dance with suicide. In his postscript, Miller perpetuates a rumor that Foucault had gone to the baths in the Castro as late as 1983, deliberately infecting partners with HIV, and furthermore, suggests that were this “shocking piece of gossip” true, it would be more or less consistent with Foucault’s body of work and might even explain his late turn away from the modern discourse on sexuality explored in the introductory volume of The History of Sexuality, and toward the sexual practices of Greek, Roman, and early Christian antiquity discussed in subsequent parts. Miller credits the novelist Edmund White, who “himself had been part of a kamikaze club” at the height of the AIDS crisis, for helping him to formulate the theory. But in her notes to Bodies that Matter, a book that owes much to Foucault’s late work, Judith Butler writes that Miller’s biography “exploits the trope of homosexuality as itself a death wish,” enabling “a certain heterosexual prurience” to become “free to express itself under the rubric of sober criticism.”

As a result, Miller’s book—and with it, Wade’s account—has been marginalized in the scholarship of Foucault’s disciples, who are perhaps more numerous now than they were in the decade after Foucault’s death. Stuart Elden, a professor at the University of Warwick who has published two critical studies of Foucault’s work and has a third on the way, all but excludes Miller from appraisal of the biographical literature in his afterword to Macey’s book, and in a 2005 essay for the Journal for Cultural Research, expresses doubt over Miller’s (and Wade’s) claim that LSD altered the direction of Foucault’s late work, wonkishly demonstrating that the dates are all wrong. Foucault completed the first volume of his History in August 1976, fifteen months after the Death Valley trip, but, “As Miller himself notes, it is in the spring of 1978 when Foucault returned to the Collège de France after his sabbatical that the real problems start to be apparent.” After reading Wade’s memoir, for which he provided a blurb, Elden is less dismissive, though he still attributes any shift in Foucault’s late work to intellectual rather than biographical causes. “It’s clear that this was important to Foucault, the question is how it was important.”

Death of an Author

For Foucault, such answers were always to be found in what he called “the archive”: emerging, as he writes in The Archaeology of Knowledge, “in fragments, regions, and levels, more fully, no doubt, and with greater sharpness, the greater the time that separates us from it.” The correspondence between Foucault, Wade, and Stoneman held at USC’s ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives consists of ten letters sent between March 1975 and January 1984. Foucault establishes an affectionate tone in the first missives exchanged after his visit to Southern California. In one, written in English on May 30, 1975, Foucault regrets the “cold weather, aggressive people always in a hurry, phone calls during all the day” of his life in Paris: “I feel that I have to emigrate and become a Californian.” He thanks Wade for “our conversations and my experience in Claremont,” which he finds “really enlightening for this work,” and as a token of gratitude sends copies of Surveiller et punir, Deleuze and Guattari’s book on Kafka, and for Stoneman, an LP of Séquence by Foucault’s former lover, composer Jean Barraqué. In the next letter, dated January 28, 1976, Foucault frets over the progress of his History, and promises to visit next fall, telling Wade, “I am anxious to read your book about Death Valley and our trip. It still remains for me one of my great experiences.”

Wade was “devastated” by James Miller’s book, possibly because of the implied conclusion, which makes more of the philosopher’s sexuality than his drug use.

The letters are a rare treat for serious readers of Foucault, as the philosopher wasn’t in the practice of saving correspondence, and the bulk of what remains is embargoed in the Bibliothèque Nationale until 2050 due to a prohibition against posthumous publications in Foucault’s de facto will, enforced to varying degrees by sociologist and activist Daniel Defert, Foucault’s longtime partner and heir to his estate. How these letters found their way to the archive brings to mind Henry James’s The Aspern Papers by way of Indiana Jones and Storage Wars. With Miller’s help, Penner made contact with Wade in the mid-2000s; they met at a Starbucks near Wade’s home in Oxnard, and with some prodding, Wade allowed Penner to photocopy the manuscript of Foucault in California, which Penner sent to several publishers, believing it to be a “really important historical document.” By the time Penner had met Heather Dundas, then a graduate student in creative writing at USC, at a Christmas party in 2014, he had taken a job teaching in Puerto Rico, and had lost touch with Wade. As Dundas writes in her foreword to Foucault in California,

I found it frankly hard to believe that a philosopher of Foucault’s standing would have had the time to take a trip with two strangers, and even harder to believe that he would, at age forty-nine, agree to experiment with psychedelic drugs with these strangers. The whole episode was absurd, I thought, and it triggered something deeply snarky in me. I hated “theory.” I hated Foucault, who seemed to embody all the privilege and arrogance of the theory movement. When I heard that Foucault’s host in Death Valley, Simeon Wade, had an unpublished manuscript describing his experience in the desert, I decided to track him down. I wanted to get Wade’s manuscript and use it to write a satire about idiot academics in the desert.

Penner put Dundas in touch with Wade, who agreed to meet her—again, at Starbucks. Following Stoneman’s death from a seizure on a city bus in the late ’90s—a brutal conclusion to a long struggle with alcoholism; Wade only found about it six months later, after Stoneman’s body was identified by the surgeon’s signature on his hip—and Wade’s retirement from Otis College of Art and Design, where he had taught for nearly two decades, Wade had become semi-reclusive, but no less eccentric than Foucault had found him. “I thought that perhaps Wade was just an old, lonely guy who told tall tales about his one brush with celebrity,” Dundas writes. Against her malicious intentions, Wade charmed her, as he was wont to do. In 2017 Dundas interviewed Wade for Boom California, a website run by the University of California Press. Though Wade’s claim that Foucault destroyed in-progress drafts of the second and third volumes of his History as a consequence of the Death Valley trip isn’t supported by the historical record, his photographs spoke for themselves, and the interview went viral when it appeared online that September. Wade died in his sleep three weeks later, at the age of seventy-seven.

Revenge of the Repressed

In the years since, David Wade, an attorney, has assumed responsibility for his brother’s estate. Under threat from some of the most destructive wildfires in California’s history, David and his wife Nancy, an artist with experience in archaeological excavation, spent the final weeks of 2017 sorting through two storage units for the Par Avion envelopes Simeon was never able to find, which Nancy uncovered amidst shoeboxes, vinyl records, outmoded electronics, and other hoarder staples, greenlighting the book deal her brother-in-law was never able to secure. Circulating the news via email, David connected the dots of a life lived at the margins of celebrity, counting among his brother’s students at Harvard publisher and biographer James Atlas, vice president Al Gore, and writer Anne Fadiman, who remembers Simeon as “a rigorous, challenging, and interesting teacher who made Shaftesbury, Mandeville, Hobbes, and Locke at least partly comprehensible to a room full of baffled eighteen-year-olds.” For Lars Trägårdh, a Swedish historian who studied with him at Claremont, Wade was an ideal mentor: enthusiastic and friendly, “genuinely interested in knowledge for its own sake,” yet free from “the sort of authoritarian bullshit that some professors engage in.” In an independent study course they devised together, Trägårdh recalls studying the literature on particular hallucinogens—mushrooms and cacti, all organic—after which he would write a short paper on the substance, ingest it, and then compose a reflection. Patti Podesta, a production designer who worked on Memento and Jurassic Park and teaches at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, was the only woman at Wade and Stoneman’s party for Foucault, who wore her hat; when I asked if she took psychedelics with Wade, her history professor, her response was deadpan affirmative: “Come on.” In a eulogy for Wade, Gregg Kilday, who knew him since Harvard and, until recently, was film editor at The Hollywood Reporter writes about the end of Simeon’s time at Claremont:

He’d started to wear tie-dye tank tops everywhere and he’d developed a couple of enemies in the faculty who were probably jealous of the freedom with which he lived his life and the rapport he developed with his students. I told him he could probably get away with teaching whatever he wanted to teach, even if some of them thought it was subversive, but he had to stop wearing those tank-tops to faculty meetings, because instead of confronting him on substantive issues, his rivals would try to undermine him on simple matters of style and decorum.

Undermine him they did. In an op-ed published in Pomona’s Student Life newspaper, Trägårdh and another student, Brit Schlinke, boldly J’accuse! the Claremont history faculty who voted to terminate Wade’s contract on the grounds of a failure to publish, citing the CVs of Wade’s colleagues on the tenure committee, which are hardly more impressive. Noting that Wade’s departure will leave the European studies program he founded without real leadership, not to mention the “indispensable core” of his “innovative” teaching, Schlinke and Trägårdh conclude that the committee amounted to a kangaroo court, its decision predetermined in disregard of American Association of University Professors guidelines.

On March 22, 1976, Wade wrote that he was “distressed” that Foucault was struggling to complete his “book on sexual repression”: “the task is so enormous, so important that you should take Montaigne’s advice and be kind to yourself. A sabbatical seems desirable for many reasons, not the least of which will be getting you back to California.” More distressing, still, was the future of Wade’s career: accusing Wade of having “narrowly-defined interests,” refusing to entertain “other points of view” in class, and being obsessed “to the point of identification” with Foucault, “a small cabal in the history department” succeeded in discontinuing Wade’s position at Claremont, effective at the end of the academic year. Enclosing a letter from his department chair to the dean, which he insists “is full of lies,” Wade tells Foucault that the chair, “a leading authority on the Bill of Rights, who is a bit careless about perjury, use of evidence, proper procedures, etc.,” “attacked [me] for being gay and told some students he would fire me if I published the book on Death Valley,” the manuscript of which he includes as well. The seamlessness of his pivot to Foucault in California (alternately titled The Death Valley Trip) suggests that Wade was hoping for success as an author to make up for his fall from the ivory tower. He had already sent the manuscript to Myriam Portnoy at Pantheon, Foucault’s American publisher, who “asked for some indication that [Foucault] approved” of Wade writing the book. He welcomes Foucault to ask him “to delete any passage or reference which you might find objectionable for any reason,” and expresses regret that he and Stoneman will not be able to visit Paris, as they had hoped. “If I get some kind of advance from the book or some indication that it will be published we will then plan a three week trip to Europe this summer. Otherwise I will have to teach summer school to keep us going.”

The archive tells us that it took over a year for Foucault to respond, but on September 16, 1977, he offered Wade a sort of enigmatic endorsement:

Comment aurait-il été possible de ne pas aimer toi
Simeon
Death Valley Trip
Epistème la gris.

Foucault signs off, “Je vous aime frénétiquement”—I love you (both) frantically. When Wade responded several weeks later, it was also in French, co-signed by both Simeon and Michael, whose “I” Wade ventriloquizes, telling Foucault how they’ve opened an art gallery together, where they “sell nonsense to make money!” Attached is an illustration Stoneman dedicates to Foucault called “L’Érotisme donc le Phallus,” which Miller remembers from his research in Paris as a bunch of penises drawn in the style of Keith Haring. The surrealist flirtation is not lost on Foucault, who writes back that December, having just returned from the prisons of East Berlin and the dungeons of the West: “I am passionate for hermaphrodites, but that does not stop me from thinking about kissing the two of you.”

The letters are a rare treat for serious readers of Foucault, as the philosopher wasn’t in the practice of saving correspondence, and the bulk of what remains is embargoed until 2050.

Foucault sent a final postcard the January before he died: “Have a good 1984. I hope to see you in California next fall. Kisses to you both. Michel F.” Though there’s no record of it in the correspondence, a Time magazine profile from 1981 includes a photograph of Foucault on the steps of a USC lecture hall, mid-laugh, flanked by Stoneman and Wade. According to David Wade, this was the last meeting the three friends were ever to have: the Californians whisked the Frenchman away from the reception scheduled in his honor to a party of their own at the Circa Gallery, a commercial space in a Northridge stripmall where Wade and Stoneman had been sleeping under a piano so as not to arouse the landlord’s suspicions. Though the extent to which Wade and Stoneman had embraced the hippie lifestyle since Foucault had last seen them must not have gone unnoticed, it’s unclear whether Foucault realized that his friends were now destitute. David sent Simeon money every month from 1977 to 1984 to keep the couple afloat. Apart from peddling their wares at the gallery, which may have been more of an excuse to pay cheap rent (David remembers the two taking baths in a tin tub in the parking lot once a week when the mall was closed), Wade picked up classes where he could at California State University Northridge and local prep schools, but a botched dental surgery in the late 1970s left him almost unable to teach for some time, with an addiction to codeine his brother says he was never quite able to kick.

In 1982 Wade began teaching at Otis, where he became a prominent member of the faculty, but the art school salary was not enough for the couple to live on. By then, they were renting a place on North Heliotrope drive, across the street from Los Angeles City College in East Hollywood. One day, Wade crossed Heliotrope to the registrar’s office and asked, “Are there any classes that you pay anything to teach?” The answer was “nursing,” and before long, Wade was enrolled in a nursing program; he passed his board exams and got a job as a psychiatric nurse at Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center. Simeon and Michael moved to an apartment near David in Silverlake, and for the first time in nearly a decade they were blessed with a decent salary, health insurance, a pension plan. Stoneman’s own mental health began to suffer at this time, along with other physical effects from drinking, and the two moved to Ventura. They bought a second grand piano, and for a while they would play together, until Stoneman became too difficult to live with, and Wade moved back to L.A. It was around this time that many of Wade’s family and friends lost contact.

The Revolutionary Schizophrenic

What is tempting to read as a tragedy, if sadly commonplace in the context of “the adjunct crisis” and the wholesale gutting of higher education endorsed in California Governor Ronald Reagan’s 1970 remark that the state “should not subsidize intellectual curiosity,” may be something else altogether. Patti Podesta thinks that Deleuze’s work may be more helpful to understanding Wade’s life than Foucault’s—particularly the concept of the “revolutionary schizophrenic,” as developed in Deleuze and Guattari’s two-part Capitalism and Schizophrenia, which like Foucault’s work, Wade taught before the books were published in the U.S. In Chez Foucault, the 110-page Xeroxed fanzine that Wade used to teach intellectual history at Otis, he distinguishes the neurotic (“get money or die”) and the psychotic (Van Gogh, Kaspar Hauser) from revolutionary schizophrenics such as Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet, George Jackson and Angela Davis, characterized by “fluidity of desire, resistance to codes, and the splitting into selflets.” For Wade, the theoretical model Deleuze and Guattari call “schizoanalysis” “enables individuals to get through the wall (the reality principle) and to keep on truckin.” Enemy to fascism, capitalism, and the normativity of Freudian psychoanalysis, the revolutionary schizophrenic lives knowing that it is not she who is crazy, but rather, society.

Accusing Wade of being obsessed “to the point of identification” with Foucault, “a small cabal in the history department” succeeded in discontinuing Wade’s position at Claremont.

Resisting the neoliberal condition as radically as Deleuze and Guattari prescribe may come across as impossibly naive at this late moment, but Wade lived his life as a revolutionary schizophrenic and suffered for it, to be sure. His methods—hallucinating with students, attempting to convert his brother to homosexuality, or screening The Silence of the Lambs for the criminally insane, which he did as a psychiatric nurse—may strike us as unorthodox, but are they not more meaningful than the hundreds of articles devoted to vampirically regurgitating Foucault that journals in fields from social work and poetics to applied science and security studies publish every year? Though he preferred to think of himself (somewhat pretentiously) as a journalist, in an oft-quoted passage Foucault compared his work to a toolbox, which has opened the gates for generations of academics to “apply” misreadings of his concepts and methodologies to whatever subject serves their chief purpose: calling the bluff of an audience who probably doesn’t understand what the fuck they are talking about but, for the exact psychosocial reasons that Foucault’s work was instrumental in identifying, refuses to let it on. The irony that this audience has evolved into a powerful elite of tenured faculty sustained by an underclass of contingent, exploitative labor must have been painfully acute to Wade, who converted to the materialist conception of history during his junior year at William and Mary. He never got tenure, but he was a demonstrably better teacher than his colleagues who did. Is there a campus today where this story has not yet been told?

In “The Ph.D. Octopus,” an essay for the March 1903 issue of The Harvard Monthly, William James bemoans the trend, then novel at some schools, of requiring instructors to obtain a doctorate in their discipline as a prerequisite to teach. “Will any one pretend for a moment that the doctor’s degree is a guarantee that its possessor will be successful as a teacher? Notoriously his moral, social, and personal characteristics may utterly disqualify him for success in the class-room; and of these characteristics his doctor’s examination is unable to take any account whatever.” In Wade, James would have found an exception, though still subject to “this new class of American social failures” for which the university’s “love of titles” is responsible. That Michel Foucault, inheritor to Sartre’s throne as public intellectual, came to befriend Simeon Wade just four years after debating Noam Chomsky on Dutch television may have been more likely than a hot-ticket showdown between Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Žižek seemed a few years ago, but is not the sort of relationship that the power structures at work in the contemporary university are designed to encourage. The dismantling of institutions in whose honor Foucault’s work continues to be exhumed has not yet succeeded in liberating the carceral subject, and yet, Wade used it as a textbook to free himself. The way Patti Podesta, his favorite student, sees it, Wade chose another path: jouissance. “And I think we all know,” she concludes, “how difficult that life would be.”

Andrew Marzoni is a writer, editor, and musician in Brooklyn.

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Further Reading

 September 11

Anne Boyer’s outward-looking cancer memoir wrests disease away from the realm of the individual.

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