Rosalind C. Morris | Notes on a Double Disavowal: Conversion and the Question of Late Style

By Rosalind C. Morris

1. In lieu of summary: the detranscendentalization of conversion?

In many ways, the overall argument of The Hermeneutics of the Subject is a simple one. Or at least, it is a summarizable one. Within something called the Western philosophical tradition, as it is understood for us now (for Foucault in 1981), the dictum of “know thyself” has functioned as a regulatory principle and an ideal. According to Foucault, this emphasis on the gnōthi seauton/know thyself has been wrongly privileged over the discourse, practice and concept of epimeleia heautou or care of the self, although the latter once constituted the “justificatory framework, ground and foundation for the imperative to “’know thyself’” (8E/10F). Epimeleia heautou was in fact the principle of all “rational conduct in all forms of active life that would truly conform to the principle of moral rationality” (8E/10F) in the period before Christianity—the era that Foucault sometimes calls Pagan. In these lectures, Foucault describes what this care of the self comprised, what kind of politics it enabled, what kind of ethics it summoned, what kind of relations it produced between the subject and truth.

Foucault’s discourse is animated by a central disavowal, namely that the relation between truth and the subject can be reduced to the question of the subject’s truth, of his/its innermost desires. Why, he asks, should the truth of the subject be the truth about the subject, or the truth of the subject’s secret interiority? This particular presumption, essential to psychoanalysis, and especially Lacanian psychoanalysis, is, for Foucault, a Christian legacy, and that legacy was enabled by a prehistory that both grounded and was transformed by it. The question for Foucault is, why did we neglect the notion of care of the self in the “reconstitution of [our] own history”? (12E/13F)

Now, the epimeleia heautou is not merely an assemblage of what Marcel Mauss would call “techniques of the body,” even though there are such techniques involved (I will have more to say about the anthropological antecedents and ghostings in Foucault’s discourse below). It is an “event in thought,” which is to say a phenomenon in history that remains significant for contemporary thought, despite the surpassing of all the circumstances within which it first arose as an object of habitual, if not normative practice (9E/11F). This event encompasses and is comprised of: attitudes toward the self and others; forms of attention; and actions exerted on the self by the self” (11E/13F).

Perhaps most enigmatic in this argument is Foucault’s claim that care of the self is a mode of conversion. Indeed, one may say of this lecture series something like what Foucault says of Marx in Les Mots et les Choses/Order of Things. There he argues that all of Capital can be understood, thanks to a transformation of philosophy via linguistics, as the analysis of a single word, namely value (OT, 298[1]).   The Hermeneutics of the Subject is, I believe, organized and oriented by the word, “conversion.” This is because the subject does not have access to the truth by right, but only, at least as the late Greek, Hellenistic and Roman philosophers understood it, on the basis of a transformation of his being: “he must be changed, transformed, shifted, and become, to some extent and up to a certain point, other than himself” (15E/17F.). This transformation is conversion.

Foucault writes: “there can be no truth without a conversion or transformation of the subject”. Of the two possible modalities of such transformation, there is “eros”—the movement of the subject toward a truth or of the truth toward the subject; and “work/travail”, which entails a transformation of the subject by himself (Foucault’s subject is always and emphatically male). Work is here nominated as “askesis”. The English translation of work for travail is in some ways correct, but loses the sense of trial and/or test that is also present in the French and which is central to Foucault’s argument.

Later Foucault will speak of the beatitude of the subject (16E/18F), and repeatedly throughout this Course, the word transfiguration will come to supplement and even, on occasion, to replace conversion. We are, of course, speaking of the realm of “spirituality”—albeit one without a hereafter. The Christological lexicon is obvious here, and saturates the text, even when, perhaps especially when, Foucault is endeavoring to show how different was the discourse of the late Hellenistic and early Roman period from that which defined Christianity until Cartesianism (a remarkably mobile and plastic historical referent). As Foucault will argue, the difference consists largely in the presence or absence of the Word, the Text, God, and Revelation as the goal and justificatory principle in the process of conversion (408E/390F). The Hermeneutics of the Subject is thus a text about conversion without reference to God or Revelation. Of the subject, therefore, without the Other (at least not in the way that the Other had been thought in psychoanalysis and anthropology up to that point). There are nonetheless others and it is an open question as to whether Foucault saves the master from the status of the surrogate Other. Certainly, the subject is at risk of being retranscendentalized in his discourse, as Gayatri Spivak argued long ago.[2] In the absence of an address to sexual difference, this is inevitable. But I will not repeat here what has been so well argued elsewhere.

What is this set of lectures as an exercise in hermeneutics? Foucault begins by saying that they will be divided in two, with the first half devoted to theoretical exposition and the second to “something more like a textual analysis” (1E/3F). It will follow on the previous year’s lectures but be more general (2E/4F). Gros describes Foucault’s method in the new format as “patient reading” of texts and “word-by-word commentary on them” (518E). Not every word. Foucault selects terms that are conceptual operators, nodes or even key symbols in discourses about practice and most especially the practice of government or governance. Note, that this is no longer an exploration of governmentality, with that term’s fecund play on the Lévy-Bruhlian and, to a certain extent, Dukheimian concept of “mentalité. In any case, the operative terms, coming mainly from the Greek texts remain largely untranslated, although often glossed, the stubborn if Romanized form of the original marking a point of discontinuity that is essential to Foucault’s more substantive thesis about the nature of genealogy.

The philologist is everywhere apparent in this process, which invariably begins with a question of definition, but which approaches that question via grammar, etymology and, finally, paleonymy (paleonymy is, of course, a Derridean concept, referring to the use of old words in contemporary critical projects). Here one example must suffice. Beginning with heautou, which Foucault identifies as a “reflective pronoun”, he goes on to ask “What is this relation, what is designated by this reflective pronoun, what is this element on both the subject side and the object side…What is this identical element present as it were on both sides of the care: subject of the care and object of the care?” (53E/52F, and 462E/443-4F). The point is that the subject should be changed in the very process of reflexivity: “we should not constitute a continuous history of the gnothi seauton whose explicit or implicit postulate would be a general and universal theory of the subject” (462E/443-4F).

What commences as a philological and linguistic exercise becomes not only an conceptual one but a genealogical displacement. By the end, Lacan has been displaced, and especially the claims central to the “mirror stage”, but also the essay, “The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis,” (1953) a writing/écrit that, non incidentally, shares almost all of the concerns of Foucault’s course, from the status of memory and amnesia in constituting the subject experience, to the operations of rhetoric in language (quite beyond metonymy and metaphor), the nature of mastery and obligation, and so forth.[3] A corollary of this displacement will be the transformation, in Foucault’s discourse, of the concept of the master’s discourse. It is not that there is no concept of the master or of mastery (“one cannot care for the self except by way of the master”), but that this will have to be reconceived in historically specific ways. Indeed, Foucault will describe three forms or bases of mastership (maîtrise) based on his reading of Plato’s Alcibiades: exemplification or modeling, competence, and dilemma and discovery in dialogue, all of which rest on what Foucault calls an interplay of ignorance and memory (128E/124F). Part of Foucault’s task here is to write a history of the changing modalities of the work of memory in the preparation of the self for life and more specifically for life in and of power.

Now, the tripartite taxonomy of mastership concerns the nature of the relation within the Socratic dialogue, where the purpose is to liberate the young man from ignorance. Foucault’s young man seems always already freed from the entanglements of his familial or natal, which is to say domestic world, from the attachments of consanguinity. He is always already within the realm of fraternity, saved from the strictures of heternormative reproductivity, being trained to govern or to function within governments (and not only of the self). It seems to me that this axiomatic is linked to Foucault’s experiments with and aspiration toward forms of fraternal relation, at once erotic and ascetic (in the sense of askesis) that would also be free from the strictures of what Deleuze and Guattari call Oedipality. That is to say, we cannot separate the project of the lectures from the project of the life in which they were embedded, whence the emerged, and whose conjoining was precisely Foucault’s task. Unfortunately, this conjoining was also associated with the increasing neglect of questions of sexual difference in Foucault’s work. These are questions that Lacan was precisely concerned to delineate and that have sexual difference as their orienting assumption and problem—though not, of course, from a feminist perspective, even if in a manner that many feminists, including myself, have found useful.

There are consequences to this problem, which is not one of topical exclusion, and there are entailments, but above all, there are a priori assumptions that cannot be hidden beneath the claim to detranscendentalize the subject. As I’ve already noted, others have written about this at length, and I am not going to repeat that here. My thesis, related but different, is this: that in the movement from the question of governmentality and of institutional power/power that manifested itself in the histories of disciplinarity and penality, psychiatry, population management, race and biopolitics, and even sexuality, among other things, to the question of governance; from techniques of power to techniques of the self, in other words, Foucault remains concerned with the problem of “truth” and more specifically with “veridiction.” This is, indeed, the claim and point of almost all the self-reflexive asides that appear in the 1981-2 lectures wherein Foucault attempts to name his project and retrospectively characterize his life’s work. But the techniques of the self in the 1981-2 are essentially techniques of the self for those who govern others or who participate in and enable the government of others. In this context, where the problem of veridiction orients thought within the scene of socio-political power, flattery comes to occupy the place that hysteria did in the analysis of psychiatric power.

Hysteria, you recall, was a problem for psychiatry because it confused somatic and psychic causes. Charcot’s efforts to force the body to speak its truth was a failed, for Freud at least, response to the fact that there is no objective difference between the hysteric’s faked symptoms and the real ones; her dissimulations had a reality effect. So, on the body on the woman, psychiatric power would endeavor to write the story of sexuality as perversion. Others would simply eject hysteria from the taxonomy of mental illness. Foucault, you will recall, concluded his seminar of 1973-4 with a note from the archive in which one of Charcot’s hysterical patients is undergoing convulsions. During this episode, she calls out “Camille! Camille! Kiss me. Give me your cock!” (PP 322E[4]). Foucault described this episode, which he termed bacchanal and which, in his own speech, must have become redolent with homoerotic potency, and suffused with a wry interest. He also read it as the hysteric’s “victory cry”, and “counter-maneuver by which the hysterics responded to the ascription of trauma” (ibid).

All the more reason to say that, in Foucault’s work, the displacement of hysteria is also the displacement of the question of sexual difference, albeit under the sign of sexuality (though mainly for English readers). I will now explain what I mean and how, I believe, Foucault is led to make this claim as a matter of his own textual practice, but also in what ways it marks and produces the distance between him and so many of his contemporaries, who were also concerned with many of the same issues. Much of that hinges on the delineation of a difference between regularity and normality, between automaticity and submission to the law.

2. On Method: The Play of Representations, and the Question of Style

The training that the young man of the Socratic dialogue receives, and whose reconfiguration Foucault describes, will finally be described under the term paraskeuē. Foucault glosses paraskeuē as matricies of action or equipment (322-324E/308-9F). English loses the wonderful play between maîtrise and matrice, which enables Foucault to make his argument about what we might call the “culturalization” of mastery. Indeed, this is related to what Foucault describes as the real development of a culture of the self. By culture, he means a “hierarchical organization of values that is accessible to everyone but which at the same time gives rise to a mechanism of selection and exclusion.” This organization, he goes on to say, requires regular and costly conduct which, produced through forms of conduct that are both regular and reflective, constitute a systematic knowledge (179E/172-3F).

When I say that the near-rhyme of maîtrise and matrice enables Foucault to make this argument, I mean to imply, in a very strong sense, that there is a conceptual operation made possible in and by virtue of Foucault’s particular language (French), despite his insistence that the historical processes he is speaking of are not a function of anything that is intrinsically linguistic. Indeed, I think one can say that Foucault takes from Kant (whose Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View he both translated and analyzed, before writing Les Mots et les Choses) a recognition that human beings are basically at play in and played by representations, and that it is the task of reason to make use of this play.[5] Much more can and should be said on this topic, but for now, a few examples must suffice. One can certainly sees this happening in Foucault’s deployment of the rhymed terms lie (first person singular of lier, to bind) and lis (first person, singular, to read), which permit a conjoining in thought of reading and binding. This pairing, it turns out, is central to the concluding lectures of the course, where indeed Foucault discusses the relationship between the logos and the lexis. For reading is one of the practices of the self—at least as conceived by the Greek, Hellenistic and Roman philosophers. In Foucault’s account of a few texts from this (long period) reading ultimately binds the subject to the truth, the truth for which he is adequate, for which he prepares himself, not as a form of submission to the law (this is crucial), but as the effect of a relation with and to himself (332E/316F).

Obviously, it is not possible to chart the full range of metamorphoses that are described by Foucault in these loquacious lectures. We can sketch them very briefly in terms of the following reorientations. 1) In the first development, and emerging from Platonism, the care of the self is transformed from the teacher’s erotically invested concern with the student, into a life-long practice, which includes a kind of disinterestedness analogous to the doctor’s relation to the patient. This is the first step in the de-eroticization of the pedagogical relation (59-60E/59F). 2) Care of the self moves from perceiving the divine element in oneself, necessary for the assumption of a role in government (where care of the self is a compensation for inadequate education, but also a need to distinguish between those capable of government and the masses [75E/73F]), to a generalized value which, nonetheless, only a few could indulge [83E/80-1F]. 3) Related to the latter, the mediation of the universal aspiration and the limitation of access is said to have been performed by fraternal organizations, schools and sects [113E/110F]. Foucault describes several forms of mental exercise, advocated by philosophers who were increasingly deprofessionalized and whose role of providing “spiritual guidance” was “integrated within advice and opinion” (143E/138F). These include morning self-examinations, letter-writing, and forms of submitting oneself to a gaze that either seeks the experience of divine insight through analogy with the gods or that learns proportion and detachment through the same analogy (here the comparisons are generated on the basis of reading Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Demetrius). Foucault’s insistent and recurring theme is that care of the self and knowledge of the self as well as knowledge of the world are implicated, “entangled” (69E/69F), in pre-Christian or Pagan thought. Their separation is one of the great wounds inflicted on Western humanity by Christianity. As Jean Cohen said a few weeks ago, the opposition here, to a Weberian conception of asceticism and its linkage to Protestantism is clear but implicit. John Rajchman has also given us a provocative account of the circumstances in which Foucault (and Lacan’s) engagement with the question of Christianity depended on re-orienting the tradition of German-Jewish thought’s rapprochement with Protestantism (via Weber) such that it could be brought into conversation with a Jesuitical Catholicism instead (See Truth and Eros[6]).

In any case, as the question of veridiction (truth-telling) gives way to parrhesia (frank speaking) in the later lectures, it becomes more and more clear what is at stake in Foucault’s re-formulation of Lacan’s notion of ‘vrai-dire’ but also why he could not indulge the oppositional politics of “speaking truth to power.” He wants a concept of avowal that is not merely submission to the discourse of power, which is not merely a confession before God, but a relation to others, in which “I myself can hold …true discourse” and not by virtue of self-renunciation. To this end, Foucault arrives at a description of learning in which there is more than the receipt of the Word. In the French text, La Parole is translated as both “the Word” and “speech,” depending on whether it is capitalized or not (334E/317F). The point of this distinction is to mark the difference between passive receiving and active listening, and thereby to open the path to ethics. There follows a discourse on the ear, on listening (especially in Plutarch), wherein Foucault discovers “something like an automatism”. This is extremely important in the concept of paraskeuē (equipment, but also matrices of action). Automaticity is linked to the value of spontaneity, which Foucault also draws from Plutarch’s account of the effects produced on the soul by logos. In Epictetus’s writings, the recognition that logos is inseparable from lexis leads to complex argument about the necessity for a technē with which to supplement the vulnerable, because passive, faculty of listening. The techniques of the self that are used to generate this technique include various silences (341E/324F) attentiveness and posture. They also entail a de-eroticization of listening in Foucault’s account (348E/331F)), and a cultivation of immunity to flattery. In addition to listening, there is the task of reading whose aim is the “creation of an equipment of true propositions for yourself” (358E/). Finally, there is writing. Epictetus’s admonitions to write are accompanied by the demand that one imagine what is written as real, and moreover to commit it to memory via this aid.

The important thing, says Foucault, is that the subject become a subject of truth (365E/346F). He must speak freely but frankly, with directness and candor, and above all he must not flatter. Flattery is a risk because it allows an inferior to “gain the superior’s favors and benevolence, and by using his discourse.” Foucault says he “prevents the superior from taking care of himself properly” (376E/360F). And then in a flourish, quite uncharacteristic of these otherwise stylistically restrained lectures, he adds, ventriloquizing Lucilius: “the figure of the flatterer and the dangers of flattery rush in here, in this insufficiency that ensures that we are never alone with ourselves, in this inability to be alone, when we are either disgusted with or too attached to ourselves. In this non-solitude, in this inability to establish that full, adequate and sufficient relationship to ourselves, the Other intervenes who, as it were, meets the lack and substitutes or rather makes up for this inadequacy through a discourse, and precisely through a discourse that is not the discourse of truth through which we can establish, fasten, and close up on itself the sovereignty we exercise over ourselves. The flatterer will introduce a false discourse, one that precisely depends on the other on him, the flatterer. And this discourse will be a lying discourse” (378E/362F). Foucault recognizes that this is not the same flattery as that offered by the old sage to the boy, whose amorous attentions he desired. This is “sociopolitical flattery,” not based in sexual desire but in “one’s position of inferiority in relation to the other.” In the imperial court, he says, it was a problem because the question of truth for the Prince outstripped that of freedom of opinion.”(381E/364F).

The period before the consolidation of Christianity saw the generalization of parrhesia as a value, setting up the conditions of possibility for confession to assume its Christian dimensions, but it also saw vigorous efforts to restrict parrhēsia to a technique of power through an opposition to popular eloquence and rhetoric more generally. Foucault’s position on this is ambivalent. In his commentary, Gros claims that Foucault did not wish to valorize the forms of social hierarchy within which these discourse were elaborated, that he was not nostalgic for late Hellenism, with its sects and fraternities, its slavery and its monarchism. It seems to me that that is disputable, as Stathis Gourgouris pointed out last week.

Flattery as the reviled object of a preventive technology of the self is the culmination of a long historical process but also an incipient concern in all that precedes it (Foucault acknowledges it in Plato’s early writings). However, it becomes a political problem in the era when the intriguer and the phenomenon of the inner court come to dominate the realm of power. That is to say, the world of the Prince is the world in which truth becomes political (last time, we reflected on what this means for the current presidential politics in the US, where truth and truthiness have been displaced by reality tv’s effects). As an aside, it is not incidental that the flatterer/intriguer is precisely the figure who absorbs Walter Benjamin’s interest in his account of allegory in the Baroque court—where ornamentation dominates, and the intriguer is something like the death’s head in the courtly theatre of appearances.

As I indicated above, flattery is first and foremost a problem of simulation. It is simulation in the domain of politicized veridiction. Flattery means you can’t tell the real friend (the truth-teller, the technician of parrhēsia) from the one who wants to abuse you, and extract gifts. Now, the problem is that you can’t tell the difference. Plutarch offered some guidelines. But parrhēsia is not a vehicle for the hermeneutics of suspicion that would allow one to recognize the lying flatterer. It is an equipment that ought to prevent one from needing that technique. It is likened to a defensive art. But the techniques of the self, which have a certain martial dimension, put one on guard against flatterers, by devoting one to the idea that one should speak the truth, and be capable of speaking the truth and that one should seek in others those who are capable of doing so as well. If this matters for everyone, of course, it matters especially for he who will govern.

This distinction between a generalized value and a restricted access to it is central to Foucault’s argument and to his concept of culture. Before I pose the question of whether Foucault’s arrival at the question of parrhēsia demanded his own conversion from a style of writing characterized by great rhetorical extravagance, to one of relatively austere or at least calm restraint, therefore, I want to note something by way of the concept of techniques of the self and their affinity with anthropological concepts of culture. I’ve already noted Foucault’s notion of culture, which insists on the gap between the promise of universal access and the actuality of technical demands that function to exclude individual subjects. It is unfortunate that he did not pursue this as question of gender and sexual difference. Nonetheless, this is an important politicization of the culture concept, viz. the far more universalist understandings in American (but not necessarily French or even British) anthropology that emphasized notions of shared meanings, and so forth.

If Paul Rabinow, whom I am inadequately replacing in this seminar, were here, he would not doubt address on the topic that he has written about so extensively, namely the concept of paraskeuē/equipment. But we can also note the strong affinity, and therefore the differences, between Foucault’s concept of matrices of action and Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, also adapted from Greek philosophy. For myself, I have previously argued that it was Foucault’s quite extraordinary appeal to American Anthroplogy, given his ambivalence about the discipline, was partly explicable in terms of the perceived affinity between Foucault and Bourdieu, as well as the strong echo of Marcel Mauss, whose essay on “Techniques of the Body” became something of a sacred text after Lévi-Strauss introduced it into the Mauss’s oeuvre with the publication of Sociologie et Anthropologie in 1950 (it had previously existed as lecture notes).

Foucault was not particularly engaged with anthropology, despite his engagement with anthropologists, ethnologists and sociologists. Unlike Deleuze, he did not read much ethnography, and, as Marc Abèles has argued, he took very different lessons even from those they both read. Where Deleuze, for example, saw in Pierre Clastres’s writing (Chronicle of the Guayaki Indians, Society Against the State, The Archaeology of Violence) the basis for an argument about an immanent statism even in so called pre-political or non-state societies, Foucault insisted on the historicizability of the state as an institution of power/knowledge and an apparatus of government organized by principles such as discipline or biopower (the latter two being distinct but ultimately overlapping organizational forms and principles).

But one also can discern in his (Foucault’s) writings the echo of the anthropological thinkers, who were his contemporaries and collaborators in radical politics—and not merely via Deleuze and Guattari’s mediations. One thinks here of Georges Devereux, whom Lévi-Strauss brought back to France from the US, and whose writing on sexual polymorphousness and non-identitarian gender among American Indians (Mohave) led him to write both an early essay on the problem of normality (1935, before he turned to Freud) and a significant foundational text in ethnopsychiatry, namely Normal and Abnormal: The Key Problem in Psychiatric Anthropology (1956). Part of the circle undertaking a critique of psychiatry, Devereux has recently been the object of renewed attention, but as far as I know, there is no account of his influence on Foucault. [7] In any case, I make the point not to identify sources, but to understand departures. (I can’t consider here what we have already discussed at length in this seminar, namely the place of Althusser and of structural Marxism (including its anthropological variants, via Emmanuel Terray, Claude Meillasoux, and so forth), in prompting Foucault’s itinerary, though I will address the (communist) party question below.

And then there’s Bourdieu. His Esquisse d’une théorie de la pratique was published in 1972 and in English (as Outline of a Theory of Practice) in 1977. Bourdieu was concerned to elaborate a concept of structure that would be grasped in its productivity, as that which inculcates in subjects dispositions such that they act to reproduce the structures that structured them, but in a manner that is open to, and capable of responding to, the contingencies of history. I quote at length because the text does not admit abbreviation except, I dare say, as impediment: “The habits, the product of history, produces individual and collective practices, and hence history, in accordance with the schemas in the present and tends to perpetuate itself into the future by making itself present in practices structured according to its principles, an internal law relaying the continuous exercise of the law of external necessities (irreducible to immediate conjunctural constraints) – is the principle of the continuity and regularity which objectivism discerns in the social world without being able to give them a rational basis. And it is at the same time the transformations and regulated revolutions which neither the extrinsic determinism of a mechanistic sociologism nor the internal but equally punctual determination of voluntarist or spontaneist subjectivism are capable of accounting for” (OTP 82E/277F[8]). This particularly convoluted statement follows in the simpler one, which might have suggested greater intimacy with Foucault, namely that “Even those forms of interaction seemingly most amenable to description in terms of ‘intentional transfer into the Other’, such as sympathy, friendship, or love, are dominated (as class homogamy attest), though the harmony of habitus, more precisely, the harmony of those and tastes – doubtless sense in the imperceptible cues of body hexis by the objective structure of relations between social conditions” (80E).

Well, you get the immediate sense that Boudieu’s concept of habitus, achieved partly through the work of techniques of the body, is still a mode of explaining the internalization of law in societies characterized by little dissidence. Or rather it explains how submission to law is itself a principle of regularity. Nonetheless, the point is that practice produces spontaneity, automaticity, those values to which Foucault turns to at the end of the 1981-2 Course as the accomplishment of a Care of the Self, but with the specific goal of enabling the discernment of flattery. Now, as you know, Foucault has argued that the concept of truth as that opposed to illusion is integral to Western philosophical systems, and that what he finds in the Hellenistic and Roman world is something else, something in which the question of truth-telling remains subordinated to the task of making individuals capable not only of veridiction, but of bearing the truth. The entire burden of geneaological method is called forth in this argument, which offers veridiction as an answer to the Marxist teleologies in which contradiction is the engine of history’s own truth, as self-becoming. This is why Foucault ends the Course of 1981-2 pointing not to Marx but to Hegel, and the Phenomenology of Mind.

 Nonetheless, it is difficult not to note that in the very same context as Bourdieu elaborates his notion of habitus as a ”matrix of perceptions, appreciations, and actions,” (83E) he must invoke the opposition with mastery and the problem of historical transformation. Within the habituating field, there are those who are in possession of discourses which enable “symbolic mastery of the practically mastered principles of the class habitus” (83E) Bourdieu is still deeply within a Marxian paradigm and struggling to rethink the opening gambit of Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire. When the question of a history that exceeds the desires of individuals arises, Bourdieu resorts to the concept of hysteresis effect, which he adduces to explain what happens when the objective conditions and the habitus become, as it were, temporally out of joint. The lag, the belatedness and the incapacity to respond to new opportunities, even revolutionary ones, is a function of not being prepared for reading the world, or responding to it with that automacity that lets the subject act without objectifying his actions. It is when memory fails. And, in some senses, this is exactly the kind of mindless or bad habit, as Foucault says, that “care of the self” ought to rescue men from.

Hysteresis is linked to hysteria as the symptom of a problematic (not a pathology), the former standing for a problem within the epistemological constraints of dialectical materialism, driven as it is by contradiction, the latter within the eventful discourse of “veridiction” as Foucault discerns it. I cannot say more here, but you can see that Foucault is grappling with the problem of truth and illusion, and staving it off only to be enshrouded by it.

Let me then turn back to the problem flattery as the hysteria of socio-political power. I suggested that the analysis of the Course culminates an investigation in which the rediscovery of parrhēsia and the repudiation of rhetoric, but also the understanding of techniques of the self as dependent on listening, writing, reading, writing and reading again, created a dilemma for Foucault as a writer. I will conclude with a few reflections on that issue.

3. Con/textual conclusion, or Back to Late Style.

It is well known that, sometime around 1975, Michel Foucault determined that he would not write as he had previously done, that he would find a new style and that this change in style was demanded by the re-orientation of his project and his effort to reconceive the problematic to which his writing would henceforth be devoted, but which he would retrospectively narrate as a continuous aspiration. John Rajchman has written eloquently on this issue, and in his “Course Summary,” Frédéric Gros also notes that Foucault “avowed” his change of style “insofar as [he] intended to write a history of the subject.” What Foucault himself had called “Gongoristic” and “Baroque,” Rajchman calls “hermetic, highly literate, replete with sophisticated jokes and puns, arcane allusions, neologisms and strange formulae” (TE 3). For his part, Gros is somewhat more economical in describing the style that Foucault abandoned as “flamboyant” (508).

By way of confession, then, what attracted me first to Les Mots et les Choses (1966, The Order of Things) and subsequently to Surveillir et Punir (1975, Discipline and Punish) and, later (though it was written earlier), to La Naissance de la Clinique, was precisely Foucault’s literary exorbitance, the seductions, scandals and outrages of his prose. Description and argument appeared indissociable in these texts or, as he would later write (in the Course of 1981-82), the lexis and the logos of his discourse seemed as one. The indirect ekphrases that open these books, from the voluptuous account of Velasquez’s Las Meninas to the terrifying description of the showing of the instruments of torture to Damiens (and its botched enactment), seemed not so much to make things of words, as to make events of discourse. That changed, but in enigmatic ways.

At least initially, I found the works after 1978, and the publication of the The History of Sexuality/La Voloné de Savoir disappointing. Their restraint perplexed me, and not only because they were mainly lectures. They left me with a sense of partiality, occasionally of mercurial luminosity but, as often as not, of superficial alacrity. And they were oddly unerotic. My response is no doubt personal—although not only personal. In 1981, I was 17. I left home, went to college, took a lease on an apartment, became an “adult” insofar as alcoholic consumption was concerned, and an infant, insofar as sexual being was concerned. In Canada, then, the age of consent for homosexual women, or women engaging in homoeroticism, was 21, not 16, as it was for heterosexuals. My lover then, who was older than me, became, de facto, a criminal. As we have seen throughout this seminar and across all of Foucault’s writings (Judith Butler remarked this again last week), the histories of sexuality, law and illegalism are intimately linked, and moreover, the avowals of desire (and not only of identity) are often also implicit avowals of the discourses and systems of power/knowedge by which sexuality is made an object and a scene of disciplinary intervention. Like many caught in this predicament, my politics were over-determined as passional.

Despite its subject matter, the style of discourse of The History of Sexuality, Volume 1 felt oddly bereft of revolutionary zeal—even though it became the object of fervent uptake and even though it appeared to revolutionize the study of sexuality. Reading the Course of 1981-2, The Hermeneutics of the Subject, provides a partial explanation for the seeming attenuation of literary libertinage in the writings on sexuality; this has something to do with what I am calling here Foucault’s double disavowal: of party politics and Lacanian psychoanalysis. Like all disavowals, of course (dénegations, not desaveus), these ones are also complex affirmations. I can put this explanation as follows: thematically, or substantively, rather than stylistically, Foucault’s concern with the care of the self derives from his effort to rethink not (only) sexuality but politics. In his reading of Alcibiades, Foucault writes, “the need to be concerned about the self is linked to the exercise of power” and again, “Care of the self: the point at which the notion emerges is here between privilege and political action” (36E/37-8F). This politics has its place, as Stathis Gourgouris said last week; the scene whence Foucault derives his lessons, where he invests his efforts at excavation for the purposes of counter-reading (rather than contra-diction) is that of the Greek monarchies and imperial Rome. But it also has its contemporary aspiration, or at least there is an insinuation of transhistorical translatability, which is perhaps one way of thinking about genealogy: “the need for the care of the self…is inscribed within the political project, but also within the pedagogical lack” (37E/38F).

Why is the change in style significant in this context? To answer this requires that we consider both the nature of the Course and the moment of its unfolding.

First, the lectures of 1981-2 are remarkably sedate, slow-moving, cautious even, when compared to the earlier lectures, and especially those of the mid 1970s, which are full of audacious proposals, speculations and (sometimes) abandoned hypotheses. The lectures of 1981-2 are also doubled in duration. This is the first time that Foucault delivers 2 lectures a week, rather than 1, and the expansion of the time of speaking summons a slowing of writing. The relationship between writing and speaking, as well as reading, forms a crucial topic of investigation in the lectures of March, as we have seen. Now, this folding over of the form of discourse onto its object and, indeed, its objective, is not unique to these lectures. Nonetheless, there is something in the Course of 1981-2 that appears especially poignant, as if Foucault was attempting to enact the forms of self-examination and questioning that he describes being advocated by the Hellenistic and early Roman philosophers, and especially Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. This sense, at once poignant and suspicious, has to do with the time of the lectures themselves, by which I mean not the timing or even timeliness of the lectures (of which topic there is insufficient time to discuss), but their context. At the risk of undertaking a kind of contextualism that Foucault would perhaps disavow, it is important to register the contours of that moment.

1981. In January, Ronald Reagan assumed the US presidency, and the American hostages in Iran were released, a conjoined event that would ramify forward in US policy and in the perception of Reagan’s Christian presidency for decades. This year saw the beginning of the partnership between Thatcherism and Reaganism–the proper names beneath which neoliberalism would arise as the conclusion to the long sixties, with its numerous experiments in anti-statism, sexual liberation and feminist struggles for equality, as well as the movements for civil rights and penal reform, already discussed at length in our own seminar.

We have talked at length about Foucault’s possible complicity with neoliberalism. This is neither a decidable nor an interesting question to me, although I do believe that the techniques of the self that Foucault describes in this course might well be described as techniques of leadership. Insofar as “leadership” is the discourse through which we learn to hate democracy, to avow and even to love inequality, and insofar as these are intrinsic characteristics of the neoliberal order, the question cannot be entirely ignored. In any case, in this year of Reagan’s ascension, what Étienne Balibar earlier described (in this seminar) as Foucault’s double disappointment, with both the communist parties and party states of Europe, on one hand, and the Iranian Revolution, on the other, was complete.

This disappointment is not merely background. On February 10, in the first hour of his lecture, Foucault describes his intention to analyze the phenomenon of conversion as it was initially posed by the Hellenic and early Roman philosophers (Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Plotinus), first as conversion “of the self/de soi” and then as a conversion “to the self/à soi” and finally “to oneself/à soi-meme.” He describes conversion as “one of the most important technologies of the self the West has known” (208E/199F), and proceeds to mention, but only in passing in this instance, its place in Christianity. And then, he interrupts himself to remark that in the nineteenth century, the idea of conversion returned and was “introduced into thought, practice, experience and political life in a spectacular and we can say dramatic way. One day the history of revolutionary subjectivity should be written” (208E/200F). He will not write that history. To the contrary, he can only note with something like a sigh–“the bland experience of our immediate contemporaries” who “only convert to renunciation of revolution. The great converts today are those who no longer believe in the revolution” (209E/200F). Mary McCarthy had already dramatized this bland and often cynical theater of renunciation in her novella The Oasis in 1949. But after the failures of 1848, such conversions are repeatedly enacted, and, as Foucault says, “There is a whole story to be written” on that account. But, as we have seen, he will write about something else, an account of “conversion” that will “return us to our homeland, the homeland of essence, truth and Being.” His conversion, in other words, will be different. Has already been different.

The footnote to this statement references Plato (Phaedrus, Phaedo and Meno), but the reader of these lectures will hear the echo of Heidegger. This is because, only the week previously, the usual format of the lectures has been interrupted with a question or a series of questions, quite unprecedented in this series of lectures. On February 3, Foucault is asked by an auditor of the Course, quite aggressively, whether there are not some “fundamentally Lacanian concepts coming up, as operators” in what he has said. He answers, perhaps coyly, with a question: “Do you mean in the discourse I am giving, that is to say in the way in which I am talking about what I am talking about, or rather, in the things I am talking about?” (187-88E/ 180F). The questioner’s insistence that they are inseparable leads Foucault to say that he cannot know which of his ideas come from Lacan, or rather, that is not for him to say. But he continues by arguing that his discourse is as Nietzschean as Lacanian. He nonetheless returns to a tribute with which he had opened the Course. This takes the form of asserting that only Lacan and Heidegger had previously posed the question of the relationship between the subject and truth.   Insofar as he can indeed say what is in the back and front of his mind, Foucault will speak from the “side of Heidegger.” But on January 6, the first day of the Course, he had already acknowledged that “Lacan…is the only one since Freud who has sought to refocus the question of psychoanalysis on precisely this question of the relations between the subject and truth…[He] reintroduced into psychoanalysis the oldest tradition, the oldest questioning, the oldest disquiet of the epimeleia heautou, which was the most general form of spirituality” (30E/31F).

To what need to Lacan’s gesture constitute a response? To the failures of both Marxism and psychoanalysis, which, having taken up a transformed practice of spirituality, “in totally different ways” are both concerned with “the problem of what is at stake in the subject’s being (of what the subject’s being must be for the subjects to have access to the truth) and, in return, the question of what aspects of the subject may be transformed by virtue of his access to the truth” (29E/30F). What Foucault rejects in both “totally different” discourses, is that the question of the subject is reduced to that of organization (class position, membership in a school, initiation, analyst’s training). Indeed, when he returns to this topic again on February 10, Foucault goes so far as to say that conversion to revolution—a passionate, practiced but also reasoned gesture—has been replaced by “conversion to a party” (209E/200F). The first disavowal in this sense is that of the party as the Other to whom one owes one’s allegiance, to whom one must confess. But there is also an avowal that Foucault rejects, and that is the one which appears on March 10, in the form of someone who says—in response to psychiatry but also to the advocates of gay rights—“This is what I am/Voilà ce que je suis” (409E/391F).

Let me then mention, briefly (but why do we so rarely mention it?), the other contextual dimension of that year, 1981, in which Foucault delivered his lectures.

In 1981, of course, the Centers for Disease Control acknowledged for the first time the existence of unusual clusters of disease among sexually active gay men (or men practicing homoeroticism), including kaposi’s sarcoma and Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. By the end of 1982, but several months after Foucault completed his lectures, AIDS had been formally named. The fatality rates were shocking. Panic was gripping the gay community in San Francisco and New York, as well as elsewhere, and the lethargy of the formal public health machine, as well as the hysteria of the political, mediatic and religious institutions in the US, were supplemented or compensated for by a different kind of response, sometimes hysterical, sometimes sober, among gay activists. Foucault, famously active in the experimental forms of sexual relation that were being undertaken at that time, in both the US and France, apparently dismissed even his friends’ efforts (such as Edmund White’s, in 1981) to encourage preventive self-care (safe sex) as American puritanism. He would be dead within three years.[9]

No one who reads Foucault’s writings on the histories of sexuality, and especially these lectures, cannot be struck by the uncanny melancholia that seems to afflict some of the later lectures in the Course, and especially those in which Foucault discusses the meditations on death, or the warnings against the transience of youthful beauty, or the hastening of life in old age that summons the rush to care for the self. But this no-doubt anachronistic reading is less grounded than that which finds in these lectures an emphatic refusal of the kinds of avowals which, in the US context, constituted the axiomatics of the “gay rights” movement.

The gay rights movement long preceded the events of 1981, of course. AIDS saw its transformation, perhaps even its perversion in and by the medical establishment. By then, that establishment was inseparable from the American state, with its dependency on pharmaceutical and actuarial capital, and it would bring every technique of population management, criminalization and racialization to bear on the epidemic. If the care of the self had been absorbed into Christianity and turned into mere asceticism, it was finally turned into the instrument of narcissism (the pathological version) as Foucault delivered these lectures when, in 1982, as safe sex educators fought their losing turf battles with the heroes of hygiene closing down the bath-houses, Jane Fonda released her exercise video and the culture of body building took off as the mode of remasculinizing male homosexuality.

This is the scene of Foucault’s late style, not perhaps in Edward Said’s sense, but in the sense that it is the beginning of the end of his writing. Except that he had plans for rewriting, calmly, the history of the subject as the subject of truth. It is still, one laments, a transcendental subject, even if historicized. The Kantian legacy or rather its problematic, of the aporetic relation between the empirical and the transcendental, which Foucault had diagnosed in his reading of the Anthropology insists, or one might say, remembers itself here.


[1] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences [Les mots et les choses] (New York: Vintage, 1970 [1966]).

[2] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Revised edition, in Can the Subaltern Speak? Reflections on the History of an Idea. Edited by Rosalind C. Morris, 21-78. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

[3] “The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis,” in Écrits, trans Bruce Fink, pp.197/237-68/322. New York and London: Norton, 2006

[4] Michel Foucault, Psychiatric Power. Lectures at the Collège de France, 1973-4. Ediged by Jacques LaGrange. Translated by Graham Burchell. Series Editor: François Ewald and Alessandro Fontana. English Series editor Arnold I. Davidson. New York: Picador, 2006 [2003].

[5] Immanuel Kant. Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. Trans. and ed. Robert B. Louden. Intro. Manfred Kuehn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 24 (135).

[6] John Rajchman, Truth and Eros: Foucault, Lacan and the Question of Ethics. New York: Routledge, 2010 [1991].

[7] See Stephen O. Murray’s account of the transformation of Devereux’s work after his discovery of Freud, in “The Pre-Freudian Georges Devereux, the Post-Freudian Alfred Kroeber, and Mohave Sexuality,” Histories of Anthropology Annual 2009, Volume 5, pp.12-27.

[8] Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice. Translated by Richard Nice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977. This translation was based on emendations that Bourdieu made of his 1972 volume in French. But there are significant differences between the texts. Where the translation follows the original, I have quoted it, but I have not provided French pagination in the case of significant differences.

[9] Edmund White, “Edmund White Recalls A Night at the Opera with Michel Foucault in 1981,” accessed March 8, 2016, at It is worth noting that White’s recollection was made in 2014, and it is possible that his dating of the conversation is anachronistic.