Thursday, 10 December 2009

Style, Hermeneutics, Speech; Ethics & Politics in Foucault

Some intermediate thoughts on working I’m doing on ethics and politics in Foucault.


Something really obvious struck me earlier today, which is that The Hermeneutics of the Subjects , the book based on the lectures Foucault gave at the Collège de France in the academic session of 1981-82 (edited after Foucault’s death) is misnamed. It’s a book about what precedes the ‘hermeneutics of the self’, the ‘subject of sexuality’ which we are used to in the modern world. As Foucault says in History of Sexuality:

Putting it schematically, we could say that classical antiquity’s moral reflection concerning the pleasures was not directed toward a codification of acts, nor towards a hermeneutics of the subject, but towards a stylization of attitudes, and an aesthetics of existence.

The History of Sexuality II The Use of Pleasure (92)

On pourrait dire schématiquement que la réflexion morale de l’Antiquité à propos des plaisirs ne s’oriente ni vers une codification des actes ni vers une hérmeneutique du sujet, mais vers une stylisation de l’attitude et une estétique de l’existence.

Histoires de la sexualité II L’usage des plaisirs (125)

In some ways Foucault is advocating a return to the morality of style and aesthetics.

Two mistakes should definitely be avoided here: that Foucault is advocating a nostalgic recreation; that Foucault s obliterating ethics in an aesthetics or stylisation without moral aspects. So

No recreation of ancient society

No stylisation or aesthetics without moral aspects.

There is ‘emergent’ morality as there is in Aristotle’s accounts of ‘action’, ‘habit’ and ‘virtue’/’excellence’. There is not categorial shift from aesthetic to ethical, and ethical to political.

Foucault uses the idea of style against hermeneutics, so that we can learn from the liberty of the Ancients in thinking about the liberty of the moderns. Anyone familiar with liberal thought from the 1740s to the 1790s (Montesquieu, Smith, Constant, Humboldt) might think I am making reference here to the ways that for a few decades these thinkers wrote about ancient republican liberty and modern individualistic liberty, and they would be right That is something I will have to deal with more fully on another occasion, however. But I think that is a useful clue about how the return to the Ancient in Foucault is not a desire for recreation.

In his texts on antiquity, Foucault is concerned with three processes which emerge simultaneously: moralisation of sexuality, the care of the self (tied up with knowledge of the self), the emergence of ‘free speaking’ (parrhesia). The free speaking emerges in tension with speech as rhetoric, in a rather Socratic-Platonic triumph of truth over power, but also a rather anti-Platonist general disruption of language and categories. Foucault partly explains this as the disruption of the ‘performative’ (J.L. Austin referrred to the way in a linguistic act can be an act with consequences in the non-linguistic sphere, with this term) ‘Free speaking’ is the speech that is not defined by predictable consequences, that opens up to chance and defies necessity.


How does Foucault separate the ethical and the political in these categories? There is a way in which that is the wrong question, a bad question. The ethical and the political and entwined in Foucault’s discussion. ‘Free speaking’ and ‘care of the self’ both refer to ethical and political realms, through the issues of what kind of self-relation is good for the individual and good for the individual’s place in politics.

There is also a way in which we have to make the distinction. There must be some way in which Foucault makes some distinction, however provisional and variable, between individual life and life in politics. It is his account of pleasure which is most ethical in the sense that it is concerned with individual life, which is of course modified by communal customs, norms and laws. The care of the self has a strong element of preparing the self for political power, and free speaking enters strongly into politics. Free speaking also enters into the individual/religious realm of tragedy (particularly Oedipus Basileos and Ion), but then that is a very political form in Ancient Athens.

Not wishing to make an absolute distinction at all, but I think that pleasure, and the questions of the aesthetic and style are the most ethical rather than political aspects of Foucault’s discussion. These feed into care of the self and free-speaking, and there is feedback. Something similar applies to Plato and Aristotle.

What I am trying to do at present is focus the ethical and the political in Foucault in that way, with all due regard to the way in which they feed into each other, interweave, and influence each other.

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