Lydia H. Liu on Reading Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject

By Lydia H. Liu

I think we may have to suspect that we find it impossible today to constitute an ethic of the self, even though it may be an urgent, fundamental, and politically indispensable task, if it is true after all that there is no first or final point of resistance to political power other than in the relationship one has to oneself. (Michel Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject, p.252)

“Foucault incites us to think otherwise,” Daniele Lorenzini made this remark in his 4/13 Dispatch from Paris. He was referring to Foucault’s reflections on the question of truth that, in his paraphrase, “is not first and foremost a metaphysical, logical, or epistemological issue, but a political or better (as he will clearly show starting from 1980) an ethico-political issue.” In the course of reading Foucault’s 1982 lectures at the Collège de France, it struck me that the exercise in thinking otherwise—which is easier said than done—was probably the main reason I wanted to return to his work time and again. Lorenzini’s concise formulation is especially helpful as we delve into Foucault’s later lectures on subjectivity.

The Hermeneutics of the Subject is an excessively long, rambling series of lectures. It provides us with a good opportunity to examine how Foucault himself approached the task of thinking otherwise. In my mind, I always picture him doing the work of philosophy in dusty archives and libraries, rather than having conversations with philosophers. I remember asking Paul Rabinow about Foucault’s time at UC Berkeley and one of the things Paul said that stuck in my memory was that Foucault spent most of his days plowing through the rare books and manuscript collections of the Bancroft Library. Before joining Columbia, I myself had also taught at Berkeley for many years where Paul, Leo Bersani, and other colleagues used to host Foucault’s visits. But I didn’t arrive there until 1990—one was either too late or too early—to witness the intellectual excitement Foucault’s lectures had occasioned on that campus.

It occurs to me now that thinking otherwise needs to be conditioned by some kind of temporal/spatial/conceptual dislocation or reorientation in regard to one’s object of study. Whatever it is, Foucault’s method promises to take us to places that one might call an elsewhere, so we would no longer feel fully at home with our own discipline, field or habitual manner of reasoning. Might it be related to the salvation of the soul or spirituality that Foucault talks about in these lectures? I don’t know. Perhaps, it is related to what Stathis Gourgouris had in mind last week when he spoke with brilliant insight about Foucault’s inquiry promising “an opening to doing, telling, seeking,” etc.

Back in Berkeley, Foucault was invited to give the Howison Lectures in Philosophy in October 1980 where he discussed the genealogy of the modern subject in two lectures: “Subjectivity and Truth” and “Christianity and Confession.” Luckily, his audio recording is available online so I will just refer you to his own voice here (moderated by an unidentified moderator, Leo Bersani?). Foucault also gave a version of these lectures at Dartmouth College and these discussions would develop into the year-long seminar at the Collège de France that we are reading this week. A transcription and translation of those lectures with informative footnotes has just been released by the University of Chicago Press in a single volume this year called About the Beginning of the Hermeneutics of the Self, edited by Henri-Paul Fruchaud and Daniele Lorenzini.

Foucault declares in his first lecture that he tries to “get out from the philosophy of the subject through a genealogy of the subject, by studying the constitution of the subject across history which had led us to the modern concept of the self.” (About the Beginning, p.22) The project seems straightforward at first glance. But why did he want to get out from the philosophy of the subject that had prevailed in continental Europe before and after WWII? It turns out that he had two issues with it. First, the philosophy of the subject—referring chiefly to the philosophy of consciousness—failed to ground a philosophy of knowledge, and especially scientific knowledge; secondly, this philosophy of meaning failed to take into account the formative mechanisms of signification and the structure of systems of meaning. Foucault identifies two paths that have attempted to lead beyond the philosophy of consciousness. The first is the path of logistical positivism represented by the theory of objective knowledge and the second is semiology—an analysis of systems of meaning—represented by a certain school of linguistics, psychoanalysis, and anthropology that are commonly grouped under structuralism. Foucault says he would not follow either of these paths and, with the genealogy of the subject, he proposes a third path, which he describes as “a critical philosophy that seeks the conditions and the indefinite possibilities of transforming the subject, of transforming ourselves.” (p.24) Having studied the techniques of domination, he is now prepared to devote himself to the study of the techniques of the self in the projected multivolume study of the History of Sexuality. This outline should help us situate Foucault’s initial focus on the care of the self in the years 1980-1982.

The fragments or comments I offer below do not pretend to do justice to the richness and thoroughness of Foucault’s analytical endeavor in The Hermeneutics of the Subject. Bernard Harcourt has provided an excellent introduction that summarizes for us Foucault’s main arguments while clarifying the central thread of his thinking continuing on from the 1981 lectures, Subjectivity and Truth and Wrong Doing and Truth Telling. Here, I am going to set out what I think are the main issues surrounding Foucault’s concept of the subject in his 1982 lectures and raise some questions for discussion.

What is the Subject in its Irreducibility?

Foucault begins the 6 January 1982 lecture by estranging the familiar Delphic precept gnōthi seauton (know thyself), reinterpreting it in connection with epimeleia heautou (care of the self) and other technēs of the self in ancient Greek thought. He takes great care in analyzing how post-Socratic thinkers, the Cynics, the Epicureans, and the Stoics each pose the linkage between veridiction (truth-telling) and the government of the subject. In this exegesis, epimeleia heautou represents a very different technē of the self in relation to truth, knowledge, politics, moral transformation in comparison with the early Christian technē of metanoia that would develop in the third and fourth centuries. He gives substantial attention to a detailed explanation of askēsis, parrhesia, and other practices in these lectures.

Taken as a whole, the genealogy of the subject involves an analytics of the forms of reflexivity insomuch as these forms of reflexivity “constitute the subject as such.” (p.462) Foucault proposes an alternative “history of the practices on which they [forms of reflexivity] are based” as opposed to the philosophical tradition of the West that projects a history of continuous development of the knowledge of the self, extending from Plato to Husserl through Descartes, or from Plato to Freud via Augustine. Foucault’s genealogical method takes the problem of the subject elsewhere, proposing a different trajectory.

In his reading of Plato’s Alcibiades, the care of the self presupposes a certain relationship between the self and the other through discourse. Foucault’s analysis goes: “What does it mean when we say: ‘Socrates speaks to Alcibiades’? The answer given is: we mean that Socrates makes use of language. This very simple example is at the same time very revealing. The question posed is the question of the subject.” Foucault goes on to raise another question: “what subject do we presuppose when we evoke this activity of speech, which is the speech activity of Socrates towards Alcibiades?” He answers the question by drawing a distinction between the subject of the action from the set of elements (words, sounds etc.) that constitute the action itself and that enable it to be carried out. And he concludes the analysis with an enigmatic remark, stating that such action reveals “the subject in its irreducibility.” (p.55)

What is “the subject in its irreducibility” but a subject in discourse? The action of speech to which Foucault refers is not limited to speech acts as many scholars seem to think à la J. L. Austin, John Searle and other Anglo-American theorists of illocution, perlocution, performativity, and so on—which frequently let the philosophy of consciousness slip through the backdoor, if not the front door—and, strictly speaking, an act of enunciation (or enunciative modality for Foucault) is not a speech act so much as it posits a subject position in discourse without recourse to the philosophy of consciousness. This important distinction is overlooked, largely because people often confuse Foucault’s categories of discourse analysis with Anglo-American speech act theory. I don’t think we can fully appreciate Foucault’s methodological innovation in this undertaking or his other genealogical projects if we continue to perpetuate that misunderstanding. If Foucault takes great pains to distinguish his own method from that of “the British analyst” in The Archaeology of Knowledge and prefers not to use terms like “locution,” “illocution”, “perlocution,” etc. in his analysis of discourse, there is no reason why we should read speech act theory into his highly original and better developed theory of discourse.

For Foucault, the act of enunciation is more than a speech act because it posits a subject position in discourse regardless of the speaker’s intention. Take his analysis of parrhēsia on 10 March 1982. Foucault says: “in Christian spirituality it is the guided subject who must be present within the true discourse as the object of his own true discourse. In the discourse of the one who is guided, the subject of enunciation must be the referent of the utterance: this is the definition of confession” (p. 409). (French original: “dans le spiritualité chrétienne, c’est le sujet guidé qui doit être présent à l’intérieur du discours vrai comme objet de son propre discours vrai. Dans le discours de celui qui est guidé, le sujet de l’énonciation doit être le référent de l’énoncé: c’est la définition de l’aveu.” p.391) Notice he is not talking about language here, but discourse. Reflexivity is achieved through a discursive structure that compels the subject of enunciation to be its own referent de l’énoncé (the utterance or statement). How is this accomplished?

Last week when Judith Butler spoke of the self-constitution of the subject and its submission to power through the technē of l’aveu, she brought up the idea of mode of address, reading l’aveu as a scene of address that enables the binding of the subject to discourse. This reading was followed by a lively discussion of binding and unbinding, especially after Gourgouris’s presentation. Here, I would like to raise a different set of questions concerning the “whereabouts” of the subject in any discourse, binding or non-binding.

How does the subject get into any discourse in the first place? Is it by speaking, by complying with an authoritative command, by seduction, coercion or whatnot? Of course, we are not talking about the grammatical subject, but a discursive subject here. Foucault himself discusses a multiplicity of conditions for the operation of the enunciative function of which “speaking” merely fulfils one condition for the production of the subject in discourse. The other conditions include the domain of objects, enunciative networks, and the spatio-temporal coordinates that structure all discourses in some enunciative modality which Émile Benveniste would term “deixis”. Foucault makes it clear that “the enunciation is an unrepeatable event; it has a situated and dated uniqueness that is irreducible. Yet this uniqueness allows of a number of constants—grammatical, semantic, logical—by which one can, by neutralizing the moment of enunciation and the coordinates that individualize it, recognize the general form of a sentence, a meaning, a proposition.” (The Archaeology of Knowledge, p.101) It seems that Foucault’s “subject in its irreducibility” has to do with the notion of enunciation as a discursive event with spatio-temporal coordinates (essential for ethico-political action), rather than a mere function of grammar or logical proposition. This puts him in direct dialogue with Benveniste who was the first to propose and analyze the “subject of enunciation” in Problèmes de linguistique générale (Problems in General Linguistics) in 1966-1974.

It’s important to consider what Foucault is doing with “discourse”—which should not be confused with speech or language—or we risk simplifying his analyses and being led to think, in the case of the truth therapy invented by Dr. Leuret, that the patient must say “Yes, I am mad” under the coercion of cold-shower torture to assume the subject position in the 19th century discourse of mental illness, as if saying “no” would have disqualified him as a subject. In fact, the negative reply—a mere logical proposition— would not have unbound the patient from his assujettissement to the discourse of mental illness, although it would have led to more cold showers.

For Benveniste, subjectivity (along with its forms of reflexivity) lies in the enunciative structure of discourse, rather than in the speaker’s consciousness, because the subject position—empty and universally available, like the pronoun I—can be occupied by any speaking subject, including potentially, if I may update the formulation a little, a robot. His work on “subjectivity in language” exerted a tremendous impact on French structuralist and poststructuralist thinkers in the 1960s and 1970s.[1] Todorov edited a special issue of the journal Langages focusing exclusively on the topic of “enunciation” in Paris in 1970.

On cannot help but notice some curious silences surrounding Benveniste’s work in Anglo-American academia; as a result, we often forget that this linguist and scholar of comparative ancient cultures was the implied interlocutor for Foucault on the question of discourse analysis. With the exception of Jesús Velasco who mentioned Benveniste’s name and one of his works (Vocabulaire des Institutions Indo-Européennes) in his Foucault 1/13 post, this name hasn’t come up in our seminar discussions. Why is that the case? Such silences are particularly striking when we think of Foucault’s close engagement with Benveniste’s work that provides the grids of intelligibility for any understanding of the place of the subject in language and in discourse. For example, the crucial distinction Benveniste has introduced between the subject of enunciation and the subject of utterance as well as their co-presence remains central to Foucault’s analytics.

Where is the Western Subject in the Archive?

Having made my first brief point about the theoretical position of the subject in the discourses that Foucault sets out to analyze in his lectures, I want to turn to his strange, perhaps not so strange, preoccupation with the Western subject. Here is how Foucault formulates his concerns in lecture #12 on 10 February 1982, following the first hour’s exegesis of Marcus Aurelius. He says: “I would now like to pose this question of the relationship between truth-telling and the government of the subject in ancient thought before Christianity. I would also like to pose it in the form and within the framework of the constitution of a relationship of self to self in order to show how within this relationship of self to self the formation of a certain type of experience of the self became possible which is, it seems to me, typical of Western experience, of the subject’s experience of himself in the West, but also of the experience the Western subject may have or create of others.” (p. 230) Is Foucault making a comparative point here? Or is he redrawing the boundaries between the West and the rest (“others”)? What are the intellectual stakes in his appeal to experience? Can there be an enunciative modality of comparison that does not require an open act of comparison? To put it bluntly, it would be preposterous to suggest, for example, the idea of an Eastern or Oriental subject for all sorts of good and bad reasons. Either the East is a mental mirage and does not really exist (in which case, the West would be the flip side of that mirage), or there is no subjecthood in the East, regardless of the proliferation of Confucian, Taoist and other exercises in self-cultivation or what may look like askēsis from a distance. The good reason I imagine Foucault himself giving would be that the Western subject has a unique history or genealogy that can be excavated through the textual traces left in the archives whereas others may have had a similar tradition—how do we know they are not just superficially similar—but that tradition would not add up to anything like a genealogy of the subject that is uniquely marked by the relationship of veridiction and subjectivation. In that case, Foucault’s lectures should have been titled “The Hermeneutics of the Western Subject.”

Still, I want to press the question a bit further: Can there be such a thing called “the Western subject”? What’s its ground of unity? How does the problem even arise? I’m not criticizing Foucault for his omission of the rest of the world since his critical philosophy never aspires to being inclusive of all on universal grounds. Rather, the question I want to pose is of a different order: Where is the Western subject in Foucault’s archive?

Unlike Benveniste who worked with Sanskrit, Persian, Greek and other ancient languages and who aimed toward a universal theory of language and discourse, Foucault rejects the universal history of the subject and chooses to focus on the technē of the subject peculiar to the West. As you may recall, the main arc of the development of this Western subject in his genealogical narrative starts roughly from the Hellenistic and Roman periods where the technē of the self first emerged and underwent its initial transformation in early Christianity and then in Medieval Christianity before moving on to the next phases of transformation in the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, and so on. Foucault’s primary sources are mostly in Greek and Latin.

One crucial piece of evidence he draws on in these lectures as well as in his 1981 lectures to illustrate the first phase of transformation from the pagan technē of the self to Christian spirituality in monastic institutions comes from the writings of early Christian fathers, especially John Cassian’s Institutes and Conferences. As we know, Cassian had traveled to Syria, Palestine, and Egypt in search of the spiritual practices of the East and recorded what he saw in the Egyptian desert. If he transmitted the teachings of the Desert Fathers of Egypt and went back to build the Western monastic institution on that basis, what is so typically “Western” about the technē of the self that supposedly constitutes the first phase of transformation from Hellenistic and Roman ascetics to early Christian spirituality in Foucault’s genealogy of the subject?

Yet, Foucault is not unaware of Cassian’s spiritual journey to Egypt (p. 421). Perhaps, he regards the Christian East as part of the story of the Western subject coming into its own and then forgetting its past. If so, his critical genealogy of the subject can paradoxically be subsumed under the Hegelian Spirit of world history as the Spirit moves from the East to the West, culminating in modern Europe. Clearly, there are limits to how far Foucault can push his critique of the modern Western subject, for such auto-critique runs the risk of reifying the object of its critique. For the sake of thought experiment, let’s imagine a radically different scenario, one that would interrupt the narcissistic glance toward Europe for the moment. Here comes my last question: Suppose Foucault had access to other languages and other monastic archives in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Spain and elsewhere. What would he have discovered in those archives?


[1] Benveniste was elected to the Collège de France in 1937 and held the chair of professor of linguistics for more than 30 years until he retired in 1969. His well-known departure from Saussure and his contribution to discourse analysis should be reevaluated not so much as an influence on Foucault but as a formidable intellectual force with whom Foucault, Derrida, Barthes, Lacan and many other French theorists had to reckon.