By Bernard E. Harcourt
The rich conversation at the Foucault 11/13 seminar left me more convinced than ever of the tentative hypothesis that I proposed during the discussion period: namely, that Foucault’s own elaboration of the techniques of the self in these 1982 lectures—his very own work tracing a genealogy of the desiring subject through ancient Greek and Roman texts and early Christian writings—was itself an operation of care of the self. In other words, Foucault’s readings, research, and writing of the lectures themselves constitute Foucault’s ethic of the self, his own work of self on self. I mean this in two interwoven senses:
First, Foucault’s reading of these texts, his daily excursions to the library, his writings on the care of the self are themselves techniques of the self: just as he mentions and discusses reading and writing as types of ascetic methods, as forms of care of the self alongside truth-telling, conversion, meditation, etc., the actions that Foucault himself is engaged in are technologies of care of the self. As Daniel Defert will tell you, Foucault almost religiously went to the library every day and would spend his days there reading and writing—for many years at the Biblithèque nationale de France at the site Richelieu, but beginning in around 1979 at the Bibliothèque du Saulchoir in a Dominican convent in the 14th arrondissement in Paris. As Lydia Liu recounts, Foucault would spend his days at the rare books collection at Bancroft Library when he was in Berkeley. These were forms of care of self (especially the transition or perhaps conversion to the Dominican convent).
Second, Foucault chooses to read, analyze, explicate, and perform exegeses of texts that shaped him–not just any Western subject. His genealogy of the desiring subject is really a genealogy of himself as desiring subject. He is reading the ancient texts and early Christian writings that formed the tradition of Jesuit education within which he himself was brought up, educated, and shaped. These are the texts that would have formed his professors throughout his primary, secondary, and lycée upbringing—professors who were steeped in the Jesuit tradition. In other words, Foucault is working on himself, on his self, in excavating these texts that directly and indirectly shaped his own desiring subjectivity.
In this sense, Foucault’s prescriptive intervention is not to explicitly tell us what we should be doing today in order to take care of ourselves or enable an ethical turn. On that score, Foucault is silent. On pages 251-252, where he expresses his disappointment at the types of care of self that take place in his contemporary moment, and where he ties the study of relations of power explicitly to work of the self on self, Foucault does not give us any indication of how we should proceed. But that is precisely because, on my reading, Foucault is showing us what to do—namely, to conduct, through our reading and writing, a genealogy of ourselves as desiring subjects and of the formative texts and traditions that formed us directly (in other words, those that we read and studied and shaped us) and indirectly (in other words, those that formed our teachers, and parents, and spiritual and intellectual guides). In other words, this set of lectures is itself, in its very constitution, the kind of care of the self that Foucault proposes to us.
On this reading, our task going forward would not be to attempt a genealogy of the desiring subject in general, nor of the “Western” subject, but instead of ourselves; and this task could take us along very different paths, whether they be Judaic, Hindu, Muslim, or Confucian (depending on who we are), European Enlightenment or colonial or imperialist, or anti-colonial, or queer, or intersectional, or identitarian or post-identitarian. The traditions and texts would have to be selected carefully to capture our own history, educational upbringing, intellectual paths, and influences.
I am not saying that this interpretation of The Hermeneutics of the Self has explicit textual support in these lectures or that Foucault states this in the text. There is no passage where Foucault explicitly says this. But, as Luca Provenzano suggested at the seminar in reaction to this proposed reading, it is possible that Foucault was signaling this reading in the final sentence at the very end of his 1982 lectures when he refers to The Phenomenology of Spirit, calling it “the summit of this philosophy.” (487) It was well known in Foucault’s circles, as it is today, that there exists one interpretation of the Phenomenology that reads it as an auto-referential journey of the spirit—as Hegel’s own intellectual and spiritual trajectory. Is it possible, as Luca Provenzano speculates, that this may have been a wink and a nod to the reader? Is it possible that Foucault was telling us that, like Hegel’s Phenomenology, the genealogy that he is tracing in The Hermeneutics of the Subject is really his own journey? Perhaps. Or at least, that is my tentative hypothesis coming out of our seminar.