Category Archives: Foucault

Foucault, Care of the self, Renunciation, Internalization, Fear

I just want to touch on something we discussed in class: the question of renunciation, and how renunciation started appearing noticeably in the Roman notion of the “care of the self”.  I said that I believed that renunciation begins as more people begin to look into themselves much more closely in order to care for themselves at a more thorough degree.  I also said that the Socratic notion of knowing oneself being replaced by a need to care for oneself shows a shift from curiosity about the external world to a kind of preoccupation with the self, and threats that the external world could potentially impose on the self.  I equated this shift to an example of an “internalization of conscience”, a phrase that Nietzsche more or less made famous.  The idea is that one’s attention gets shifted from the external world back into himself because of a fear of damaging himself through instinctual, full-blooded participation in the external world.  Christina rightly pointed out that the “caring of the self” still involved active participation in the world and required one to make decisions, such as the decision to renounce.  But already, before decisions like this are made the internalization has already taken place because one assumes the renouncer or abstainer has made this decision because he is worried about how action to the contrary might affect his “self”.  Thus, monitoring the self for the self’s sake becomes more valuable than monitoring the world for the self’s sake.  The idea that self needs to be taken care of as trumping the idea that the world ought to be explored and that exploration will improve the self suggests a suspicion, a fear of the external world’s influence on the self, which leads to measures to guard against that influence before that influence has even struck!  This careful planning is rooted in fear. Fear and distrust.  When Foucault talks about creating oneself artistically in accounts of his positive ethics, this fear cannot be there because creating oneself involves using what is external to the self for the self’s own growth.  The self cannot grow without an inherent trust and affirmation of the external world.

Greek Nostalgia

On “The Genealogy of Ethics” interview that I presented on, Foucault made two interesting statements that I would like to discuss here.  The first is when the interviewer presses him about whether he possibly shows a lack of respect for the improvements that modern science, institutions (things that Foucault is critical of in his works), etc. have had for the prolonging and quality of human life in general, and Foucault replies that his philosophical project is not to see modernity (or any human era in fact) as bad but to see it as posing potential problems.  The second thing Foucault says that interests me here is, when asked about a seemingly implicit fondness for the fecundity of free creativity that was characteristic of Classical Greece and whether or not Foucault thinks we should aim to “get back” to that culture, Foucault replies that a past period is nothing to get back to because the problems, and the contexts of the problems, they were trying to solve are so different from our own that it is inconcievable and fruitless to put ourselves in their shoes so to speak.

I am fascinated by the role that the ancient Greeks play in the thought of Foucault (and Nietzsche for that matter).  If prior historical periods are nothing to get back to, if they offer know exemplary value in relation to our period, then why undertake, in meticulous detail, an exhaustive account of how these periods dealt with certain problems. Some might say that it is done merely to show the malleability of what we perceive as the human condition and, therefore, the exciting possibilities for us to shape our own conditions.  This view for me counts for a lot, but I do think that the Greeks play an extra special role for both these genealogical thinkers.  I am oftentimes inclined to think that Foucault and Nietzsche, despite their articulation of an obviously deeply flawed society, use Classical Greece nostalgiacally as a place of myth.  A place where people were not imposed on by the same plethora of authorities that have hold of us today, a place where people did not cripple themselves with their own self-consciousness.  Though they are very different, I often see parallels in the way Nietzsche and Foucault see Ancient Greeks with the Biblical notion of a pre-fallen state.  It seems to me me that Nietzsche especially, but also Foucault, put too much significance on the “Greek way” for the purposed of what they think was done beautifully for Greece not to be seen with mythological characteristics.

Polarity of Self – CONT’D

(CONT’D of : )

Indeed, I must get to the core of what it is that I mean by Intuitive Self.

Foucault alludes to the Greek and Roman’s shaping of the self by the self through philosophical precepts such as Epicureanism and Stoicism.

Now, I sense that today’s Ideal Self (that I’ve elaborated earlier) has grown into an equivalent for the Stoicism and Epicureanism of the time – except first; there isn’t a choice to be made (such as; which philosophies speaks to me the most), and second – the self ideal isn’t fortuitous for the human specie, in that it suppresses our nature and uses it to serve external purposes. Therefore, my argument comes in play, as perhaps optimistic – but questions how Stoicism and Epicureanism came to be in the first place.

Naturally, I must be seeing something in Foucault that does allude to the “Intuitive self,” and what eventually supported my intuition was on page p.136 of HS Vol.3: “… a sort of animalization […] that is, a subordination, as strict as possible, of the soul’s desire to the body’s needs…” Here Foucault aims at the precepts of Stoicism.

So perhaps there is a more accurate term for the “intuitive self” – at least one that doesn’t allude to the same light as the G & R one, because first: we aren’t Greek or Roman, second: we live in B.C. and third: 2000 years or so later. Along that line, there is an acceptance, a certain “facing of” that both F. and N. emphasize in regards to our current situation. They both support the idea that one, we can’t deny our history, nor what has happened, and where it has lead us. And two; everything that’s happen since the G & R isn’t all bad.

Thus, I clarify that the “Intuitive Self” could be, and is better contemporarily defined as a return to the individual. Indeed, Foucault’s ethics for instance, does not consists of a “Walden” adventure (Thoreau) – that is; we should not (nor can we) be independent from the cultural and social ideals inflicted upon the individual through discourses, but simply conscious of them. As he develops on page 142: “ He must address a discourse of Truth to himself.” These discourses of Truth I call Ideals, Nietzsche calls them Abstractions and Metaphors in “On Truth and Lies […]”.

Foucault elucidates how the mechanisms of power have learned to target our most vulnerable sensibilities with such discourses: Sex and morality are examples. And that’s all the more the case today; as the process of socialization occurs at an even earlier age. (Lacan’s Mirror stage)

As a consequence, the ideal self is intensified, and required to be held upon all the more. In this light, I sense that something is being hidden from us, and that could truly be: our intuitive nature. That is, I sense we are entering an age of consciousness in which we realize how far away we’ve been brought, or lead to believe, and a return to our nature is more than necessary, therefore all the more repressed by the authoritative agency. Occurrences of revolts against the ideal are such as the 60’s sexual liberation movement, or today’s mistrust in regards to governments with the whole Edward Snowden scenario.

So if Foucault claims that we are free insofar as there is the possibility of changing the power relations we find ourselves in; could it be that this possibility is this intuitive nature? By such I don’t mean that of animalistic nature, but rather of a human one; a “natural philosophy.”

The point is, Foucault goes on with his metaphor of the “night watchman” and stresses how we must constantly inspect what is, and what is of no value to me. This makes me think of Nietzsche’s “self-criticism” in the light of stripping ourselves down to our true self. So could it be, that without being normative, Foucault’s philosophy supports the qualities of the specie.

What those qualities might be: Subjectivity.

As for how Stoicism and Epicureanism came about? They did so through a single individual who, because what was available did not suffice his personal agenda, consequently had to rely on and trust his subjectivity. With time, certain philosophies became a collectively shared subjectivity; such as Stoicism and Epicureanism.

So without being explicit, could it be that Foucault asks for “a return to the individual.” Because as I’ve understood from N.’s GM – that’s what he seems to be targeting in his viewer, his or her individuality in the light of claiming it sovereign. Could that be the case in Foucault? A return to the individual, a need for a new philosophy, a new subjectivity – and a forsaking of the objective ideals?

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!”

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.

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?

The panopticon in modern society

For Foucault, the emergence of the prison system represents society’s transition into a more organized and effective power structure. Much of the reason for this is that the prison system emerged at the same time as other disciplines (the social sciences). These new disciplines gave a new understanding of social relations, which in turn, conditioned society to look at human affairs through the lens of these new fields of study. As a result personal thought/personal opinion became more repressive in the face of experts who began telling society what to think.

The genius of the panopticon as an image of the emerging prison system is the way in which it identifies everything of which Foucault is describing about the structure of power through the organization of bodies.  As described in Discipline and Punish, the modern prison system gave birth to the ‘modern soul’, which subsequently led to a new process of discipline embodied in the  ‘examination’ of the criminal. In my opinion (maybe Foucault’s as well) the purpose of this was to feed the social sciences which in turn operate as beacons of knowledge in society, beacons that not only inform the public but condition they’re perceptions. In the face of experts, people stop thinking for themselves: they are conditioned to believe that if they are not experts, then they should forgo they’re own reasoning on particular subjects because after all the experts know better. This works beautifully in forming docile bodies: people are no longer governed by themselves but by the disciplines that permeate society. Once this division is set up, the public begins to see the disciplines as not only beacons of knowledge, but of ‘truth’. Once this is instilled into the public, the division between normality and abnormality(not only psychological but also social(lized)) is created and power becomes hegemonic: powerful actors no longer have to convince the public of their views because it is done through social conditioning. People begin to pursue the disciplines and as a result conform to its order. The content of this ‘order’ is filled by a set of do’s and don’t(s)that individuals not only abide by but regulate within other citizens. This is how the panopticon manifests in modern society. The image (panopticon) captures a state of surveillance in which the inmates are always aware of being potentially watched and as a result conform to the order of the prison. As discussed by Foucault, as well as the class, the same can be said about society: institutions (hospitals, schools, factories, etc..) condition people to accept the attributed ‘mechanics of operation’ that come with them and as a result conform to that system. This means that the panopticon operates through people; people themselves become the panopticon because they operate as reinforcers of the status quo(as defined through the institutions). This means everybody is constantly being monitored and any deviation from the norm is likely to arouse suspicion.