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?