Bernard E. Harcourt | Three Questions for Foucault 11/13

By Bernard E. Harcourt 

The insightful interventions of Rosi Braidotti, Lydia Liu, and Rosalind Morris press hard on key questions relating Foucault’s genealogy of the desiring subject to his political project—both his overarching political project at the Collège de France and his more specific political project in his later lectures.

Lydia Liu began by drawing a crucial distinction between Foucault’s method in The Hermeneutics of the Subject and Anglo-American speech act theory—between his inquiry into the positioned subject and questions of the performativity of our speech. Now, it is important to acknowledge, of course, that Foucault often drew on the familiar discourse of speech act theory when trying to develop his own method. So, for instance, in his inaugural lecture in Wrong-doing, Truth-telling in 1981, Foucault states that “I will begin by proposing a brief analysis of what may be understood by avowal (an analysis of the “speech act”)” (WDTT, p. 14). Then, again, in his fifth lecture, Foucault specifically refers to “the words of absolution” in terms “of this speech act, of this performative act that consisted of saying ‘I absolve you’” (WDTT, p. 190; Fabienne Brion and I discuss the relation to speech act theory in our course context, WDTT at p. 307). But Foucault was doing so in order to demarcate his own approach from speech act theory. In a similar way, you will recall, Foucault used the expressions of Althusser (“repressive state apparatuses”) and E.P. Thompson (“seditious mobs”) in the 1973 lectures on The Punitive Society so as to tap into a discourse that would have been familiar to his audience, in order to better distinguish his own approach. Foucault would often situate himself in a familiar discourse in order to demarcate himself and create an opening. But it is of course the demarcation that matters most—and that we need to study.

Lydia Liu also raised a pressing question about the nature of the “Western subject” discussed in the 1982 lectures. In that discussion, Lydia Liu pointed us to one crucial link in the chain of “Western” subjectivity, namely the role of Cassian (John the Ascetic of the 4th century CE). As we had seen in On the Governement of the Living, p. 300-301, Foucault was keenly aware of Cassian’s role as a bridge or link between the Western monastery and the experience of spirituality in Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. Here too, in 1982, Foucault places Cassian at the heart of his genealogy, suggesting a more complicated intellectual trajectory and influence. Naturally, this raises important questions about other possible sources and archives from the Middle East that remain to be explored.

Rosalind Morris challenged us to deeply interrogate the different techniques of the self discussed in these 1982 lectures—especially, conversion, flattery, mastery/matricies of action, writing, reading—from a political perspective and, also, to give greater attention to placing these techniques within their historical (and political) contexts. Rosalind pointed to the political importance of conversion in 1982 for Foucault, in light of his discussion of revolution. Rosalind also asked, provocatively, whether these techniques of the self “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 of [Foucault’s possible complicity with neoliberalism] cannot be entirely ignored.”

Rosi Braidotti focused our attention on another set of techniques of the self, or dimensions of subjectivity, related to the preparation for death and the ways of relating to mortality. These techniques are fundamental to the larger issues of biopolitics, necropolitics, and thanatopolitics, in other words to forms of governmentality related to letting die or making death.

These comments raised three sets of questions for our discussion:

  1. First, how do we engage, analytically, the study of these technologies of the self? What is the relationship between (1) unearthing them, excavating them, so exposing them, (2) evaluating them, perhaps valorizing or devaloring them, and (3) using them or figuring out how to deploy them in our own political projects?
  1. Who is this desiring subject whose genealogy we are tracing? Why these particular techniques and traditions of care of the self? Are they the appropriate ones to study? Do we see ourselves as Western subjects? Do we see ourselves in these histories? Or even more, is there such a thing as a Western subject?
  1. What is the political work that this genealogy of the desiring subject is doing? How does it relate to the discussion, at page 209, of the ease with which Foucault’s contemporaries are converting toward the renunciation of revolution? Alternatively, how does it relate to the “politically indispensible task” today, that of constituting an ethic of the self, as Foucault discusses on page 252?

Let me offer here a few thoughts that intersect with these three questions in order to provoke discussion.

De-romanticizing the Care of the Self

In her presentation, Rosalind Morris discussed flattery, as a technique of the self, and its dark side. It is the dark side of techniques of the self that interest me here. Too often, I sense a romantic attachment to the care of the self. As if care of self is always noble work.

Last session, I interjected the truth telling of Donald Trump to challenge or unsettle our accounts of truth telling. To deromanticize truth telling. It is essential, I think, to always stay attuned to the risk of romanticization, in order to avoid collapsing our analysis into evaluation. None of these techniques, or types of care of self, lean one way or another normatively, I take it. None can be evaluated as good or ill. Nor on the other hand can they—as an ensemble—be associated with neoliberalism. In other words, not only can they not be valorized, but they cannot be devalued as a whole.

Here we might return to the passage that Rosalind Morris points us to on page 209: the matter of conversion and revolution. The passage is fascinating and reveals Foucault’s apparent contempt for some of his contemporaries, which he characterizes in the following terms: “The great converts today are those who no longer believe in revolution.” “We only convert to renunciation of revolution.” This reads as an indictment of an act of conversion – of a technique of the self. In its historical context, in February 1982, we can detect here a possible reaction against the criticisms that he received for supporting the Iranian revolution. We might also detect some disgust at the nouveau philosophes who are starting to lean right. Conversion itself, as a form of truth telling or subjectivity, does not and cannot be evaluated; what matters is what is being done with the technique.

In part, I think we tend to romanticize the care of self  because Foucault himself practiced these ascetic arts. Writing, daily writing, for Foucault, was an ascesis, as was going to the library and reading for hours upon hours every day. Daniel Defert often talks about this. The rituals of reading and writing were ascetic forms for Foucault. And perhaps for us as well. And there can surely be moments of growth from these practices of the self. But that should not lead us to affirm the arts of the self, nor to denigrate them as as a whole.

The “Western” Subject

One hypothesis regarding these 1982 lectures is that much of Foucault’s archival work represents an attempt on his part to excavate a genealogy of the desiring subject in order to show how he (Foucault), not just the Western subject, was shaped in his own subjectivity. On this reading, these lectures should be interpreted as his own work, almost like a confession, much like St. Augustine’s Confession or Rousseau’s Confessions: as having a deeply auto-referential nature, reflecting closely his own Jesuit upbringing.

On this hypothesis, Foucault is exploring an ethics of the self that shaped him and a certain class of the French intelligentsia with similar backgrounds. Foucault and many of his peers were raised in Jesuit schools, taught and disciplined by Jesuit teachers, and in that sense deeply marked by a tradition that extended back to antiquity and through the Church Fathers. The intellectual trajectory that Foucault traces in these lectures is related to his own.

This may be troubling to some readers who are seeking a more generalizable or even universal subject; but for those of us interested in the method, rather than simply the substance, the auto-referential nature of the enterprise does not pose problem. The trajectory that Foucault explores may be somewhat unique and may not apply to those of us who were not raised in a Jesuit tradition or are not Christian. That does not undermine the project though; it simply means that we each may need to trace our own intellectual tradition of care of self. It calls on each one of us to do the intellectual work necessary to trace our own subjectivity as desiring individuals… which will surely involve different and unique trajectories.

Does this end up undermining the possibility of a desiring subject of the West? Does it mean, as Lydia Liu suggests, that there may in fact be no Western subject? Does it constitute, in effect, a “Westernism” critique, as opposed to the Orientalism critique that we are familiar with in the writings of our former colleague, Edward Said? Perhaps.

The Political Stakes

Judith Butler persuasively argued at the last session, in response to the first round of questions, that we need to think of these techniques of the self in a deeply reflexive manner that does not make it easy to reappropriate them in a direct way. This makes it indeed difficult to discern the political stakes.

There are, however, some places to seek guidance. Daniel Wyche at the University of Chicago has written a brilliant essay on the civil rights movement and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In his essay, “The Politics of Self-Overcoming: Spiritual Exercises & Political Liberation,” Wyche begins to excavate the relationship between the work of self on self and political engagement. He discerns moments of conversion to the civil rights movement through a personal overcoming of fear, recounting an instance of one elderly woman who embraced political resistance by overcoming her fear of the police dogs that were used to intimidate protesters. The conversion, Wyche shows, was central to her political engagement.

In his 1982 lectures, Foucault offers some historical reflections on this question. On page 251, he begins in the 19th century and suggests that there were many efforts to reappropriate the care of the self. He intimates that these efforts were not all unsuccessful. But, he suggests, in the 20th century, the renewed efforts at reestablishing an ethic of the self were disappointing and led to somewhat vapid tentatives (think here of all our self-help manuals). Foucault argues, on the next page, that is it indispensable that we reinitiate these efforts at care of the self, but he offers no clear guidance. He does emphasize, though, that it is essential. He refers to is as “an urgent, fundamental, and politically indispensable task.”

On my reading of these 1982 lectures, the reason that Foucault does not offer guidance to his audience is, perhaps, because he is himself in the very process of doing the work of self on self. In other words, he does not need to tell us what to do, since he is showing us what he is doing. I will develop this further in an epilogue.