It’s hard to come out of Michel Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of Prisons” without being obliterated by existential dread. Living up to its title, the book opens with a several page-long detailed description of an 18th century public execution. Foucault goes on to outline the dissipation of public executions, hangings and public torture giving way to the “humane,” discrete and sterile organization of today’s western courtroom, prison and lethal injection.
As the dawn of industrial capitalism breaks, however, Foucault not only identifies the generalization of the prison model in the classroom, workplace and doctors office but also objects to the notion that these penal systems exist to reform an abnormal subject. Rather, he asserts that these institutions exist to churn out an irredeemable class of people. This irredeemable or “punishable” class is used to measure the worth and utility of their peers. It is this fear of being like the irredeemable, he argues, that makes the self.
To me, his analysis checked out. But, I didn’t like it. To be fair, I don’t think anyone would like being informed that their life-long causal self-consciousness was panoptic self-policing and that their sense of self had been created by an incessant effort to differentiate themself from the “punishable” class (i.e. the incarcerated, queer, “lazy,” “insane,” etc.).
This raised the question: How might one go about liberating themself from a power so pervasive and normalized that it literally shaped them, their aspirations and desires?
Foucault’s answer? Perhaps doing LSD for the first time in Death Valley with a Claremont Graduate University faculty member.
After being catapulted to structuralist stardom, Foucault sought out new frontiers at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1975. The 1970s Bay Area was a miraculous powder keg of counter-culture and activism. The Bay Area was the simultaneous backdrop for the Black Panther Party, Angela Davis, the Occupation of Alcatraz Island, the election and assassination of Harvey Milk, the kidnapping of Patty Hearst and a whole lot of hippies. Arguably most compelling to Foucault was the unparalleled gay culture fostered, nurtured and celebrated by queer found families in San Francisco.
It was here after a lecture at UC Berkeley that former Claremont Graduate University assistant history professor Simeon Wade and his life partner Micheal Stoneman invited Foucault to Southern California. A certified Foucault fanboy, Wade had communicated with Foucault prior to his rise to international fame, hoping to inspire a visit to the Claremont Colleges. Reluctantly, Foucault agreed to the trip.
During an interview with Boom Magazine, Wade discussed his persistence with getting Foucault on LSD.
“I thought, if I give Foucault clinical LSD, I’m sure he will realize that he is premature in obliterating our humanity and the mind as we know it now, because he’ll see that there are forms of knowledge …” Wade said. “The tremendous emphasis of finitude, finitude, finitude reduces our hope.”
“I thought, if I give Foucault clinical LSD, I’m sure he will realize that he is premature in obliterating our humanity and the mind as we know it now.” —Simeon Wade
In June 1975, the couple greeted Foucault in Claremont and set out on the five-hour drive to Death Valley — the hottest place on Earth.
“We went to Zabriskie Point to see Venus appear,” Wade said in the Boom interview. “Michael placed speakers all around us, as no one else was there, and we listened to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf sing Richard Strauss’s ‘Four Last Songs.’ I saw tears in Foucault’s eyes … We stayed at Zabriskie Point for about ten hours.”
Through LSD, Simeon Wade aimed to metamorphize Foucault’s thought — and that he did. Prior to the trip, Foucault had published the first volume of his acclaimed “History of Sexuality.” Afterward, Wade attests to a letter he received from Foucault in which he defines the trip a “great experience, one of the most important in my life” moving him to throw out volumes two and three of “History of Sexuality.” Starting from scratch, the rewritten volumes would take on sexuality as something to be invented.
Authors of “The Last Man Takes LSD,” Mitchell Dean and Daniel Zamora emphasize the transformative nature of the experience, as though the mind-altering substance dissolved Foucault’s understanding of the self.
“After his California experiences … Foucault’s subject becomes a free one, an active agent capable of making itself through spiritual and physical exercises,” they wrote in the book.
To Foucault, the self was not something that was buried and repressed, waiting to be discovered. He advocated that the self is a project of creation which reveals itself to those who are willing to obliterate the old self.
“We should not liberate our sexuality but free ourselves from the whole confessional system that predicated liberation on sexuality,” Dean and Samora summarized.
The legacy of queer self creation predates Foucault by an unknowable amount of time, but a moment of its history belongs somewhere between Claremont and Death Valley on a sweltering June day. I’m not saying the route to knowing thyself is tripping in the desert. But, to know that there is a valley beyond this, created by my hands, at the cost of executing the disciplined self — that gives me hope.
Cassidy Bensko SC ’25 is TSL’s Southern California columnist from Santa Clarita, CA. They’re a certified tree hugger, goldfish enthusiast and lover of comedy.