Monthly Archives: March 2014

Nietzsche’s Cultivation of the Self

In the second chapter of The Care of the Self, “The Cultivation of Self,” Foucault describes the emergence of  an attitude of severity concerning sexual pleasure manifested in the thinking of philosophers and physicians in the first two centuries: “there was greater apprehension concerning sexual pleasures and more attention was given to the relation one might have with them” (39). There was, however, no proposal for general or coercive legislation of sexual behaviour but rather austere self-regimentation of sexual pleasure spurred by anxiety concerning disturbances of the body and the mind. Subsequently, Foucault attributes the severity concerning sexual practices in the first two centuries not, as typically thought, to raising of moral standards or a preoccupation with moralization, but the rise of individualism and preoccupation with the self. Austere regimentation of sexual pleasure was seen as self-respect for one’s nature.

While reading this chapter I made a funny connection to the third essay is Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morality. In Nietzsche’s description of “the philosopher” he paints a picture of the latter as celibate, neither marrying nor engaging in extra-marital pleasures with women. Nietzsche insists, however, that his depiction of the philosopher is not moral or intended to be “virtuous” (76) but merely “the truest and most natural conditions of [the philosopher’s] best existence, of his most beautiful fruitfulness” (76). Consequently, this seems to fit exceptionally well with Foucault’s description of the austere sexual regimens in the first two centuries as a kind of self-respect for one’s nature. Considering Nietzsche’s use of words such as “Dionysian” and “Apollonian” and reference to Diongenes the Cynic in the story of The Mad Man which suggest the Nietzsche was at least in some respects, influenced by ancient Greek figures, I wonder if his description of the philosopher was  not influenced by the ancient Greeks as well?


In the second chapter of The History of Sexuality, Foucault argues that the power exerted in the 18th century in distinguishing and classifying non-marital practices was not directed towards repressing these practices but rather a proliferation of “sexual perversions” (42)             . Subsequently, Foucault identifies four operations involved in this exertion of power quite different from simple prohibition which resulted in the latter. Among these operations of power, Foucault includes the specification of individuals, using “the homosexual” (43), as an example. In ancient, civil, and canonical codes, Foucault explains, sodomy was a category of forbidden acts and the perpetrator “nothing more than the juridical subject of them” (43). In the 19th century, however, the proliferation of discourse, transformed the homosexual into a personage: “the 19th century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology” (43). In short, sexuality became intimately associated with or constitutive of a person’s identity, and one’s sexuality became a key to interpreting one’s personality and one’s behavior: “nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality…it was everywhere present in him: at the root of all his actions because it was their insidious and indefinitely active principle” (43).

Foucault only discusses the homosexual personage, however, I found Foucault’s description of the latter particularly interesting as I think that he has given as a format to say something much more general about the construction of personages that exist beyond the realm of sexuality. Broadly, on Foucault’s account, the personage seems to be constructed when the “the other” is distinguished, classified, and organized. I believe that evidence can be gathered for this view in virtue of the way in which individuals in minority groups come to define themselves. I spend a lot of time on the social media site, tumblr. Over a short period of time, tumblr has come to be distinguished, as a social media website, by its highly diverse and politically aware community; subsequently, I have had the opportunity to get to know a wide variety of people with different sexualities, genders, and ethnic backgrounds; those individuals who are typically labelled as “others”. While I cannot speak for them, one of the overwhelming feelings I get from these “othered” individuals is a struggle to escape being wholly defined in virtue of their differences. There is not only homosexual personage, but a transgendered personage, a Muslim personage, a Chinese personage.

It seems that we could easily extend the construction of personage to gender, religion, and ethnicity. Are there any other more subtle personages which you might distinguish?

The Taste of Medicine

Foucault opens Part 4: “The Body” with a brief history of the taste of medicine. While Foucault refers to the period of the Flavians and the Antonines (approximately 69AD-192AD), I couldn’t help but think how this period is much like today. For example, Foucault suggests that the practice and use of medicine was a “high form of culture, on the same level as rhetoric and philosophy” (p. 99). It’s interesting to think of our modern culture and how medicine is practised and used in society, and how it exists amongst class divisions. Not to mention, referring to Foucault’s quote just mentioned, how modern medicine and its entire industry is very much an empire of rhetoric and philosophy, which when combined I suppose creates a distinct ideology that is very much political.

However, what sparks my interest is this following quote: “[Medicine] was also supposed to define, in the form of a corpus of knowledge and rules, a way of living, a reflective mode of relation to oneself, to one’s body, to food, to wakefulness and sleep, to the various activities, and to the environment” (p. 100).

For me, reading this quote somehow puts health and medicine at the centre of all human activity as we know it. I understand this may seem like a superfluous claim, but right now i’m thinking of the many categories and modes of relations we create and affirm in regards to health and medicine. We basically model our personal communities around health and medicine. If we don’t like smokers or those who do drugs, we distance ourselves from them or even educate them on the health risks. If we like smoking and taking drugs we attract people who do as well, thus, together there is a community created based on health and medicine (drugs being a form of medicine; health its opposite). This can be applied to so many aspects of our lives: Running groups, yoga, tea parties, skiing clubs, mountaineer groups, etc, etc. We create our identities based on our bodies relationship to external practices. It can extend far further from just forms of exercise, as we may belong to the Organic Club, the non-GMO group, whatever. I mean, of course there is an element of sociability that is inherently human, but much of today’s world, this utopian meditative escape from the perils of capitalism and consumption: of existence! …is very much part of health and medicine. For me personally, I take vitamins, utilize the sun when I can for vitamin D (which comes from the authority of the medical community and the belief my body will appreciate it), try drinking fruit smoothies when I can, try to buy organic when possible, get at least 6-7 hours of sleep a night…all this seems so trivial and part of everyday life, yet it is all embedded in this notion of health and medicine: doing the body good. Again, it can extend to religious practices (prayer and meditation), sports and fitness, food and nutrition, even sex and pleasure. It’s all based on relieving stress, etc, etc. All of which become the grounds on which we shape our community, class, and identity.

Haha.I better stop here and keep reading Foucault. I probably sound absurd and am saying stuff I’ll look back on and say: “where the hell was I going with that!”

Problems With The Genetic Fallacy

I’ve been thinking about the Visker reading, which isn’t on the syllabus but was the piece I did my critical abstract assignment on.

Basically, Visker points out a number of criticisms of the genealogy approach, the most important one being Habermas’s idea that you cannot critique reason using reason. Visker’s solution is to limit genealogy to only a select few cases, where exposure of the origins of the social system in question would destroy the underpinnings of that social system – at least as it is currently conceived.

I don’t know how I feel about that, to be honest. For some reason, when I read Visker’s piece, I felt like this whole debate about genealogy is something that would only stand up in a “philosophical” classroom, and not in the real world. Sure, there are good arguments for such a critique, but they seem to be missing the crucial point that in practice, the genetic fallacy is often not a fallacy at all. This makes genealogy a more widely applicable critical technique than Visker thinks.

Now I know that this stance isn’t one that is commonly accepted in philosophy, but doesn’t how something start affect how it develops? I mean, let us assume we buy the argument that the success of feminism in the West was due in large part to the need for cheap labour following a world war in which the male workforce was greatly reduced. In other words, feminism was a justification for introducing a source of cheap labour into the market.

Now I’m not a historian, so I don’t know how valid such a case would be, or if it’s even possible to determine what the “most important factor” for a given historical development is. But my point is that, if we were to assume that this were true, wouldn’t that change our view of the feminist movement? After all, we ourselves are creatures of historical circumstance. Us “moderns” might have no doubt that the results of the feminist movement were positive, but that’s an opinion that we have due to all these historical processes that were set in motion before we were even born, and set the stage for how we think about social issues today.

In other words, the “genetic fallacy” is largely bogus in practice because even our contemporary “logic” is not in any way universal or divorced from historical developments. There is no way to perform a historically-independent analysis of phenomena, and so there is always the possibility of challenging the existence of a “genetic fallacy” by pointing out that that fallacy only occurs if you analyse concepts through contemporary modes of reasoning, which are themselves not universal.

Going back to the feminism example, there are many arguments we could use to support the positive effects of the feminist movement, but those arguments will likely be based on modern notions of gender equality. And those notions were only developed as a result of feminism, which in turn (according to our hypothetical example) were inspired by corporate interests. How are we then to accuse a critic of feminism using the above argument, of committing the genetic fallacy, in a way that’s independent of those developments?

And it goes even deeper than that. If we can question the genetic fallacy, then what of all the other “fallacies” that we’ve been taught in philosophy? Why shouldn’t might equal right, for instance? Maybe at the end of the day, philosophy – though it tries to question issues at the most fundamental level – nevertheless falls prey to that universal limitation of academic disciplines: that they are at base a group of scholars who have agreed not to question certain fundamentally-held assumptions.

Polarity of the Self

We’ve considered in class what Foucault could have meant by “one’s relationship to itself.” Several interpretations were given, those were of a Public in relation to a Private Self – or a Conscious in relation to an Unconscious Self. In these paragraphs, I forward my interpretation of Foucault: an Intuitive Self in relation to an Ideal Self.

The Intuitive Self will sound familiar, because you’ve come across it along the lines of Nietzsche’s writing. And Foucault alludes to its nature as he discusses the Greek and Roman’s understanding of the self. Hold on to your ideas, as I will define this intuitive man after having elaborated on the Ideal self. 

Beginning with Lacan, and the Mirror Stage. At the age of 15 to 18 months old, the child looks at himself in the mirror, and will for the first time recognize itself. At this instant, the child forms the basis for the concept of an I. The “I” is born. This “I” isn’t the individual, but how he sees himself, and how he perceives himself as viewed by others. The polarity thus arises; who I am in relation to who I see myself as.

As Foucault stresses in Vol. 1 of History of Sexuality: the many truths that are promulgated through discourses are but a manipulative device fabricated by the Authority, and serve to orient the conscience of the people in the light of favoring a political and economic agenda. The concept of Homosexuality, for instance, is one among many fully socially constructed truths which certain individuals must unfavorably associate their identities with.

The trajectory of Foucault’s Volumes on the History of Sexuality map the conceptualization of a polarity between an identity that is imposed upon him by the many discourses and apparatuses, and himself, that which I have labeled the intuitive self. This intuitive nature is alluded to by Foucault’s reference to the Greek and Romans in the later volumes. He stresses a will to shape oneself through acsesis. And elaborates his ethics in relation to morality, and how one’s way of governing itself comes prior to the moral code inflicted upon him.

The points is this: The ideal version of the self is a concept that one has of him or herself that is deceivingly contrived by the power mechanisms. Consequently, without a choice, one bases its identity on this ideal, and in doing so entertains the truths forwarded by the Authority, and contributes to the apparatuses that serve to forward them.

The Ideal self is thus a socially constructed agent that has grown to oppose itself to the Intuitive self – this struggle has been termed by Freud as Neurosis. Indeed, as forwarded by Nietzsche, we have an innate nature which has been denied for centuries – an intuitive self that has been repressed in the case of Foucault, by the authoritative agent. The mechanisms of power have contrived a knowledge of sexuality, of morality that has been promulgated as Truth, and which through time and repetition, has become self-evident. What both philosophers forward is not to confuse this self-evidence with intuition. More specifically, the two stress a return to our intuitive self, while criticizing this imposed ideal version.


Capitalism in the Bedroom

There has been an enormous amount of literature devoted to examining how Capitalism’s values have effected various areas of culture. Marcuse, especially, addresses how our sexual and love relations have been deformed by an age of competition and violence.
In the second chapter of “Care of the Self,” by Foucault, he addresses a theme in Artemidorous’s work, subjugation and inferiority. The dream interpreter is guided to ask questions about the subject’s passivity or assertiveness when it comes to the sexual act in their subject’s dreams. It occurs to me that our own culture has also become obsessed with this dichotomy. It is a common question to ask “who wears the pants” in a relationship, or to discuss who is more influential in a romantic union.
I wanted to ask everyone whether they think that this emphasis on assertiveness in a relationship is a means of reproducing a juridical notion of power that Foucault mentions in Volume I? That is to say, the juridical notion of power focuses mainly on power’s ability to limit and impose, prohibit and censor. Similarly, the dream interpretation seems to focus on whether the subject is asserting commands or taking them.
Furthermore, by transforming sexuality into a more a more and more aggressive activity, as rape-culture and violent pornography do, could this be transforming our view of power into a very negative rather than positive force?
Are there other explanations for this emphasis in the dream interpretation history that Foucault mentions?

Drives & Desires

I found the first chapter of “The Care of the Self” very compelling. Specifically, the book began by speaking out our dreams and how they may relate to our desires.
In Lacanian analysis, desires are always “other” oriented since they only arise after we come to self-consciousness. On the contrary, drives are antecedents to desires, and represent compulsions we have before we become self-conscious.
Considering what Foucault says about confession’s, interpretation’s, and language’s relation to power, I doubt we could ever attribute our actions to drives. Frequently, people refer to having a “high” or “low” sexual drive, yet, even these conversations occur within a language and discourse that passes through the threshold of the “other.”
At first glance this realization seems self-evident and boring. Of course everything is a desire because we are, by our nature, self-conscious language users. However, this becomes extremely interesting when one considers how new desires arise.
I don’t think we can simply say that new desires are the result of some bodily function. That would suggest that our body, or our drives, was sufficient to direct our actions, which, Lacan would contest because we see our body through the lens of language now. Therefore, our desires must have their origin in some form of social interaction.
I wonder whether or not we can direct social action in culture enough to produce desires that are strategically opposed to those of a dominant power, or whether, because we are using a language they’ve produced, we are incapable of producing such desires.

Scientific Discourses on Sex as “Confession”

Something that came up in class discussion about History of Sexuality Vol. 1 last week was the legitimacy of the label “confession” for scientific discourses about sex, a prime example of which is doctor-patient relationships. Foucault says that confession as a method of producing truth about sex originated in religious confessions, which encouraged people to recount information about their sexual experiences. The features of confessions that Foucault describes are easy to see in the religious confession—the truth comes to light, and there is a power relationship in between the confessor and an authority figure (a priest) who hears the confession, interprets it, and prescribes a solution (penance). As we discussed, the term “confession” also seems to imply that the confessor is guilty, and that this guilt is being confessed in order to figure out how to make up for it. This is especially true if confessional discourses originated in religious confession. But when it comes to discourses like those of doctor-patient relationships, it isn’t immediately apparent that guilt plays a role, which makes it seem like confession isn’t the right term to use.

We might choose to interpret Foucault’s use of “confession” differently, and perhaps get rid of the element of guilt but keep the other implications (e.g. truth-producing, power relation). I think, though, that we can cash out the idea of “guilt” as Foucault might use it in the case of the scientific confession to make a bit more sense. We can do this in light of Foucault’s discussions in Discipline and Punish about how a goal of disciplinary institutions is to normalize individuals. Especially towards the end of Discipline and Punish, Foucault develops the idea that penal institutions have become preoccupied not with punishing guilty actions, but with normalizing the “deviant” person. Calling someone guilty no longer just means that he or she has performed an action that is wrong or immoral; rather, “guilty” means that someone is a delinquent that deviates from the norm. When someone confesses their guilt in a judicial context (a context to which we can easily apply Foucault’s descriptions of confession), they confess their deviation from institutionalized norms. This deviation is manifested in a person’s actions, but it stems from their guilty “soul,” as modern penal institutions try to get at the motivations and such that underlie a person’s actions.

Other disciplinary institutions—including hospitals—share to some extent in the qualities that penal institutions have (since they’re all part of the “carceral archipelago” that extends out from penal institutions). One of these qualities is their goal of conforming individuals to societal norms, which in the case of hospitals are norms of health. When one tells one’s doctor about sexual practices as part of identifying illness, one is thereby revealing deviations from these norms. This is clearly related to how I just described guilt in the case of the penal system—as deviation from the institutionalized norm. The big difference is that this type of “confession” is much less about the “soul” and much more about the physical body. But, Foucault does say that non-penal disciplinary institutions share penal institutions’ qualities, just to a lesser degree. We thus might describe these scientific discourses as a less intense form of confession, which to some extent still preserves the idea of “guilt” in that there is an element of confessing deviation from norms, along with the typical features of confession—truth-revealing, power relation that results in the doctor interpreting and prescribing, etc.

Abstracts of articles/chapters posted

I’ve posted all the abstracts of articles  or chapters on Foucault and Nietzsche that I’ve received so far on this site. See the drop-down menu under “critical abstracts.” They are arranged according to whether they’re (mostly) about Nietzsche or Foucault. There is one about both, so it’s posted in both places!

Also, there are a couple of new non-traditional artifacts posted this past week–see the top menu under “non-traditional artifacts–completed.”

Foucault on Power

One phrase which stood out to me while reading The History of Sexuality Volume 1 is one which does not concern itself specifically with sexuality, but with power in general. Foucault writes “power is tolerable only on condition that it mask a substantial part of itself. Its success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms” (86).  He goes on to state that people would not accept power if it was anything more than a limit on their desires. What Foucault seems to be arguing is that power can only be accepted when it attempts to limit what people can do. If on the other hand power were employed to tell people what they must do, then a problem would arise. When power places limits on someone’s desires, they are still have a sense of freedom. They have the choice to do anything but the specific action which is limited. If they so choose, the subject can even perform the forbidden action, so long as it is done in secret, for power cannot limit actions which it is not aware of. In contrast, if the subject is told what it must do, the subject no longer has any freedom, they are under the control of the source of power.

This structure seems to hold fairly true with our society, for the most part laws tell us what not to do (murder, steal, etc…), rather than what we must do. However this is not always the case. There are laws which do tell us what we must do, yet these laws are always for ‘our own good’. One common and fairly harmless example is seatbelt laws. One must wear a seatbelt when operating a motor vehicle, to act otherwise is to break the law. Laws which limit freedom act in a similar way yet are less direct. When we are told not to steal we are in a sense also protecting ourselves from theft.

I agree with Foucault that laws which attempted to state what we must do rather than what we cannot do would be far more problematic. However I cannot help but feel that the differences are more perceived then factual. To return to Foucault’s statement that a law’s ‘success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms’, I wonder if the current laws would be seen in a different light if the mechanisms of power were visible. Police officers rather than red light cameras at intersections, a visible bug on your phone rather than calls recorded out of sight. Do we feel more in control of our lives because we simply do not see all the mechanisms of power? Or because we feel as though power we cannot see can be avoided through secrecy?