Bernard E. Harcourt | Introducing Subjectivité et Vérité

By Bernard E. Harcourt 

In 1981, Foucault delivered, back-to-back, two lecture series. First, he gave twelve lessons on Subjectivité et vérité [Subjectivity and Truth, not yet translated into English] at the Collège de France from January 7th to April 1st, 1981. The very next day, Foucault began a second lecture series, Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling: The Function of Avowal in Justice, which he delivered at the Catholic University of Louvain from April 2nd to May 20th, 1981.

Subjectivité et vérité explicitly pursues the line of research begun the previous year regarding the third dimension of Foucault’s research project—namely, beyond knowledge and power, the question of the subject and subjectivity—focused specifically on the domain of ancient Greek and Roman sexuality or rather aphrodisia (since, as he explains, the term “sexuality” is a more modern invention and thus anachronistic). As Foucault underscores on January 7, 1981: “I would now like to apply the same method [concerning subjectivity] to another domain, the domain of what we call, since relatively recently (less than two centuries), sexuality.”(S&V, p. 16).

In this light, the central question of the 1981 lectures becomes: “How to ‘govern oneself’ through actions—actions of which one is oneself the objective, the domain on which they apply, the instrument that they use, and the subject that acts?” (S&V, p. 299). To address this question, Foucault returns to texts from Greek and Roman antiquity, with an emphasis on the late Stoics—but ranging from Plato’s Alcibiades and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, to Hippocrates and Xenophon, to Cicero’s De finibus, Plutarch, Pliny the Elder, and Hierocles, to Artemidorus’ The Interpretation of Dreams and the Physiologus (both circa 200 CE)—in order to study the ancient modes of life through detailed analyses of marriage, marital life, and marital sex, the questions of sexual penetration, monogamy, pederasty, and incest, and the ways in which the ancients shared their normative views.

From the Arts of Government to the Arts of Living

What becomes increasingly evident as Foucault’s research unfolds is that, despite the continuity in the line of inquiry from the year before, we are beginning to witness an important displacement in Foucault’s thought from an earlier focus, beginning in 1977 and extending to 1980, on the “arts of governing” to a more concerted focus now on the “arts of living.” In other words, there is an increasing interiority to the object of these arts, these techne. While much of the earlier work on madness, the clinic, and the prison—and even, to a certain extent, the first volume on sexuality—examined the conduct of conduct by others, Foucault’s attention to subjectivity is beginning to produce a shift toward the conduct of conduct by oneself. One can feel this reading the 1981 lectures: they are increasingly about arts of living, about modes of existence, about ways of being. They are about what Foucault calls “la façon de se conduire, les modes de vie, les manières d’être,” “les arts de vivre, l’art de se conduire,” “les modèles de conduite,” or “ces consignes d’existence.” (S&V, p. 29). We have shifted ground to modes of life.

In the case of madness, the clinic, or the prison, Foucault maintained, “the core of truthful discourse regarding the self was held from the outside, by an other”—by the psychiatrist, the doctor, social worker, actuarian, or warden. By contrast, in the domain of aphrodesia, the truthful discourse on the self is institutionalized in an entirely different way: by the subject reflecting on him or herself. “That is to say,” Foucault explains, “it is not organized on the basis of an observation or examination, or of objective rules, but rather around the practice of avowal,” on the basis of a more internal or internalized reflection, on the basis of something that we, ourselves, tell ourselves about ourselves. (S&V, p. 16-17) It is not like the doctor who tells us we are mad, nor the psychiatrist who tells us we are dangerous; rather, it is we, ourselves, who talk about our own desires, about what we desire.

This produces a subtle shift. To be sure, Foucault’s lengthy treatment for instance of Artemidorus’ The Interpretation of Dreams (with which Foucault will open Volume 3 of the History of Sexuality) shows how the text signals to others how they should interiorize sex acts that augur well versus those that are foreboding—and surely, this is governing of the other as well. But the focus is less on particular behaviors (what Foucault refers to as “les arts du comportement,” which he associates with the modern period), than on modes of being, on “the being that we are,” or “a certain quality of being, a certain modality of experiencing.” (S&V, p. 33) This is not to suggest that other persons do not play an important role; the director of conscience, the spiritual guide is a central figure. But nevertheless, as Foucault explains:

Every art of living implicates that not only does one learn, but, as we would say with our vocabulary, we interiorize. En tout cas il faut que l’on pense soi-même, que l’on réfléchisse dessus, que l’on médite.” (S&V, p. 34).

This subtle movement from the “arts of governing” to the “arts of living” serves to reframe Foucault’s research project in relation to the bios of biopolitics. Foucault returns to the question of bios on March 25, 1981, where he suggests that the term is the closest Greek concept to our modern notion of subjectivity. (S&V, p. 255) Bios is at the heart of these 1981 lectures.

From biopolitics to “biopoetics” to “biotechniques”

As you will recall, the turn to subjectivity the previous year, in 1980, was the result of Foucault’s investigation of biopolitics: in 1979 Foucault had explored neoliberalism in order to set the foundation for a study of populations and biopolitics; he had intended to then return to the question of biopower by studying “the government of the living” in 1980, but instead returned to the ancients to reboot, at an earlier time, his genealogy of the arts of governing—his genealogy of governmentality—thus going back to Sophocles and then the Stoics and early Christian writers. But the return to the ancients in 1980, with a more focused attention on sexuality in 1981, displaces or shifts his attention from biopolitics to “biopoetics,” and ultimately to “biotechniques.”

Bios remains the central concept —corresponding to the Greek term for these arts of living, of how to conduct oneself—but it has taken on a different valence from the earlier attention to “populations.” The focus now is on techniques of the self. The hand-written manuscript of the 1981 lectures proposes a fascinating trajectory from biopolitics related to the normalization of sexual behaviors, to biopoetics related to a “personal fabrication of one’s own life” and “aesthetical-moral conduct of individual existence,” and ultimately to biotechniques, a term which Foucault uses in the public lectures. (S&V, p. 37 n.a).

From biopolitics, then, to biopoetics, to biotechniques or techniques of the self, or technologies of the self: this is the path that Foucault takes in these 1981 lectures to explore what, he tells us, the Greeks and the Romans practiced under the rubric “tekhnai peri bion (techniques of living).” (S&V, p. 37)

Aphrodesia, Flesh, Sexuality

Foucault declares that he wants to focus the 1981 lectures on “concupiscence,” what we might call lust or sexual desire. As Frédéric Gros notes, Foucault had originally planned to dedicate the second of the six volumes of The History of Sexuality to a genealogy of concupiscence under the title La Chair et le Corps [The Flesh and the Body] (S&V, p. 25-26 n.42; see back cover of the original edition of HS in 1976). This second volume was intended to be, as Daniel Defert writes in his Chronology, “a genealogy of concupiscence by means of the practice of the confession in Western Christianity and of the direction of conscience, such as it developed after the Council of Trent.” (Defert, Chronologie in Pléiade edition of the complete works of Michel Foucault, Volume 2, p. xxvii).

These 1981 lectures, by contrast, will not focus on Christian writings, but rather (mostly) on the late Stoics. Foucault will explore their writings on marriage and conjugal relations (spending a lot of time on marital relations), monogamy, bodily pleasures, and the love and erotics of boys. This research will contribute to Foucault’s ongoing genealogy of the desiring subject, which would culminate in the 1984 publication of volumes 2 and 3 of The History of Sexuality.

Most of the material in Volume 3: The Care of the Self is, in fact, a development of the material that Foucault began to explore in these 1981 lectures, Subjectivity and Truth, beginning with the opening chapter (« Rêver de ses plaisirs ») on Artemidorus, then turning in Chapter 3 to matrimonial relations, in Chapter 4 to the body and regimes of pleasures, in Chapter 5 to the wife, conjugal relations and the pleasures of marriage, and finally in Chapter 6 to the love and erotics of boys, through analyses of texts of the first two centuries CE.

What Foucault began to unearth here in 1981 already—and would build on in his later lectures—is that four-part history of the desiring subject reflected, first, in the ancient Greek experience of aphrodesia, second in the Stoic and Epicurean culture of the self in the first two centuries CE, third in the Christian experience of the flesh, and fourth in the modern experience of sexuality. (S&V, p. 78)