Caring for and Knowing the Self

I’ve been getting around to reading — finally — as the term here as ended and I wanted to start writing bits and snippets, reflecting certain lines of thought, flights of fancy, or just a set of questions, prompted by what I’ve been reading. Not sure how long I’ll be able to sustain this practice but I figure why not.

I recently reread Foucault’s lectures from ‘81-’82 at the College de France on “The Hermeneutics of the Subject.” I’d read them before apparently, since there were markings in my copy of the book, and an Evernote file exists proving so. But I had hardly any recollection of doing so.

I’m rereading them because of several reasons. First, I’m working on a project on what I’m dubbing the “arts of the self,” a term that recalls Michel Foucault’s work on “care of the self” but I’m also trying to do some thinking around not only how the self emerges as an object of labor and improvement, which he does so well historically, beginning not with Christianity but with the ancient Greeks (a point I’ll return to) but because I’m convinced that this happens today as a result of some sort of secularization. And thus, concomitantly, there is a deeply spiritual, if not religious, aspect of contemporary discourse and practice of self-beautification, including gym culture, yoga, mindfulness and so-called lifehacking. My broader argument is that this “lifestyling,” a term that I haven’t quite nailed down yet, is a secular means of spiritual practice, an attempt at ethical morality in a time where great systems of all kinds including, but not limited to (certain forms of) religion and political order (the end of liberalism that many are talking about with the growing isolationism and anti-globalism fueling right-wing nationalism across the world) are under dissolving for one reason or another. Characteristic of this form of quasi-religious practice and thinking is its orientation around “the self,” here understood as both one’s subjective, internal understanding but also the objective, external self, which Foucault, in a slightly different context, called “empirico-transcendental.”

There’s a second reason why I’m rereading this late Foucault. The Foucault that’s had a great deal of influence over the last decade-plus in social/critical theory circles has been the Foucault of governmentality and biopolitics/biopower. While this has been an important step toward Foucault studies as well as in the study of the political moment in a post-9/11 world (thanks in no small part to the work of Giorgio Agamben), I was always struck by the seemingly “weird” turn that Foucault took toward the history of subjectivity toward the end of his life. Plus, I was always curious as to why he abandoned that period that he loved so much — the “classical period” of the 17th-18th centuries — and went to the ancients and early Christianity.

So, some thoughts:

Foucault argues that morality can be found in the relationship between the subject and truth. This is what allows him to make a connection between spirituality and philosophy. Like philosophy, “spirituality” is:

..the set of these researches, practices, and experiences, which may be purifications, ascetic exercises, renunciations, conversions of looking, modifications of existence, etc., which are, not for knowledge but for the subject, for the subject’s very being, the price to be paid for access to the truth.

In other words, spirituality assumes that truth is not simply given to the subject “by right,” as he says. The subject does not have the “right of access to the truth” but rather must be “changed, transformed, shifted, and become, to some extent and up to a certain point, other than himself”(page 15). In its natural state, the subject is not capable of truth.

A rather basic point, I know, but I thought this was profound. Philosophy is the attempt to “know thyself” as the Delphic command states, but it is a knowing rooted in practices of “self-care,” a term that has gotten a lot of circulation in recent times. I plan on going into this a bit more later on. But, it seems to me, that the point Foucault is making is one that puts a couple of things into perspective.

  1. The subject was not always “ready” for truth. It had to be “cooked” not left “raw,” so to speak.
  2. The care of the self that was required(the “cooking” process) for the pursuit of knowledge required a “conversion” process. As we know, converts are often times the most zealous.
  3. Truth was not obtained through a process remotely close to the modern, scientific empiricism. It was something not quite like the modern world-picture. While there was clearly some divide between the interior and exterior, it does not seem to have been drawn between the subjective and the objective like in modern thought. Rather, the “axis” mirrors religious thought, in particular, something like the concept of original sin whereby creation is marked by some deficiency in relation to the Creator. (I will also pursue this connection at some point later on with some attention paid to Protestant theology, especially Reinhold Niebuhr.)

For next time, I’ll delve into a bit of my engagement with Agamben’s most recent work on “forms of life” to prusue a line of thought regarding the relationship between ethics and aesthetics, and why so many of the contemporary practices of the self that interest me are seemingly aesthetically motivated(hence, arts of the self).