Jesus Velasco | Foucault 10/13

By Jesús R. Velasco

Welcome to Foucault 10/13!

Today we are going to explore the productive intersection of two of Foucault’s lines of inquiry. Here, on the one hand, this as yet untranslated book –or rather, as we always try to highlight, a non-book, for this is a window into Foucault’s thinking laboratory, the place where he tried ideas, concepts, research methods: Subjectivité et vérité.

In these twelve lectures, taught at the Collège de France between January 7th and April 1st 1981, Foucault engages in one central question: what kind of experience can one have of oneself, what kind of “field of subjectivity” can be opened up in front of oneself “from the moment in which there is, as a matter of fact, historically, in front of him and in relation to him, a certain truth, a certain discourse of truth, and a certain obligation to link himself to this discourse of truth –be it to accept it as true, be it to produce it himself as true.” (28). This is, Foucault assures, a historical research: one cannot properly study this question without posing it historically, without addressing the transformation, the division, between the pagan moral –which was considered, in 19th century philosophy, the image of the other, as well as “a certain foundation of ourselves” (42)—and the category of judeo-christian moral. “Every moral reflection, no matter how general it may be, every moral question, even the most contemporary one, cannot avoid, I think, asking a historical question that is associated to it, that is like its own shadow: what happened during the first century of our era, during the shift from what we call a pagan ethics to a Christian moral.” (21)

He proposes, finally, to study “What are the transformations in relation to what we call the ‘sexual morality’ and that we can identify between the period the historiography has called ‘pagan’ and the period that the historiography has called ‘Christian’, by pursuing those transformations in the ‘arts of living.” By examining these arts de vivre (the arts of how to be, not only the arts de faire that Michel de Certeau had studied in his publication of 1980), Foucault engages in a theorization of what he prefers not to call biotechniques –in spite of his linking them to the technai peri ton bion –; he wants to study the technologies du soi, commonly translated as technologies of the self.

According to him the “technologies of the self… are, in all their practices, procedures that have been reflected upon and highly elaborated, systematized, and that can be taught to several individuals, so that they can, by managing their own lives, and through the control and transformation of their own self by themselves, reach a certain mode of life” (37).

These technologies of the self are the contact point between these lectures and the ones we have on the other hand. Edited by Fabienne Brion and our very own Bernard Harcourt, Mal-faire, dire vrai, or Wrong-doing, Truth-telling. This is a series of seven lectures that Foucault delivered in Louvain right after closing the books at the Collège –actually, the day after, from April 2nd to May 22nd of the same year of 1981. These lectures run along a genealogical line starting with the Lessons sur la Volonté de Savoir –our Foucault 1/13–, and touching the seminar on Théories et institutions pénales (Foucault 2/13), the Brazilian lectures on “Truth and Juridical Forms” of 1973 (first published in Portuguese in 1974 as ““A verdade e as formas jurídicas”,  the seminar On the Government of the Living (Foucault 9/13), and the series of lectures delivered between 1980 and 1982 in Dartmouth, Berkeley, and Vermont.

This other inquest on the technologies of the self lacks elephants and the idea morum of married life and sexuality that stand for as documenta; it lacks oneirocriticism and the connection between sexual life and social life; it lacks mathesis or teaching, meleté or meditation, and askesis as proper elements of the arts of living; it does lack the “regime of aphrodisia,” as the main concept to explore desire and sexuality from the perspective of the sexual behaviors and pleasures, a concept from which to study the framework of contemporary European sexual morals; it lacks the readings of Plutarch, Xenophon, and Musonius Rufus; it also lacks the arts of living. Meanwhile this inquest abounds in agonistic combats between epic and tragic heroes, tests, ordeals, inquests, proof, torture, avowal, confession, penitence, penance, exomologesis, and exagoreusis.

Between the two lines of inquiry, however, they compose the conceptual map of a more complex cartography of the subject and its hermeneutics in two different lines: while the first series of lectures, on Subjectivité et vérité deal with discourses of truth, the second one on Wrong-doing, Truth-telling announces a more central interest in specific performances of the subject in those experiences that can open up a “field of subjectivity”. Both projects, as many other of the labyrinthine lectures delivered throughout the years, delve into the questions that will vertebrate the unfinished project of the Histoire de la Sexualité –whose final part, Les Aveux de la chair still waits for publication.

Our guests, today, will explore both projects, and will present some of the key questions on Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling and Subjectivité et vérité.

I don’t even dare introducing our speakers. Their own presence is enough introduction. But I would like to, at least, pronounce their names.

Judith Butler, Maxine Elliot Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Program of Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley. Among her many publications, I would simply like to mention the book I bought and started reading yesterday, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, recently published by Harvard University Press. She has received numerous honors and awards in the USA, the UK, France, Germany, etc. Her work is, without the shadow of a doubt, one of the greatest intellectual productions of our time.

Stathis Gourgouris, Professor of Classics, English, and Comparative Literature and Society, has served for six years as the director of the Institute of Comparative Literature and Society. Poet and swimmer, he is the author of Dream Nation: Enlightenment, Colonization, and the Institution of Modern Greece (1996); Does Literature Think? Literature as Theory for an Antimythical Era (2003); Lessons in Secular Criticism (2013); and editor of Freud and Fundamentalism (2010). He is currently completing work on two other book projects of secular criticism: The Perils of the One and Nothing Sacred. A collection of essays on poetics and politics, written in Greek over a period of 25 years, is forthcoming in 2016 with the title Contingent Disorders.