Ethics Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Paul Rabinow, the University of California at Berkeley anthropologist who was a close associate of Michel Foucault during the philosopher’s last years, is the very capable editor of this first of three volumes devoted to publications of the author other than his principal works, such as the justly famous Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison (1975; Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 1979) and the three volumes of his somewhat misleadingly titled Histoire de la sexualité: La Volonté de savoir (1976; The History of Sexuality: Volume 1, An Introduction, 1978),L’Usage des plaisirs (1984; The Use of Pleasure: Volume 2 of the History of Sexuality, 1985), and Le Souci de soi (1984; The Care of the Self: Volume 3 of the History of Sexuality, 1986).

The selections in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth and in the subsequent volumes still appearing in English translation include Foucault’s annual Collège de France course outlines (invariably research seminars), interviews, and occasional pieces often not previously available in English translation. In the few exceptions to this last category, the translators have made slight modifications that create a more graceful, flowing prose approximating the much-remarked beauty, however austere, of the writer’s French.

The New Press’s three-volume English-language series offers a generous selection, arranged thematically, from the definitive four-volume Gallimard publication Dits et écrits. These volumes, which sit imposingly on the shelf in characteristically stark covers, adhere to a strictly chronological arrangement. Perhaps wisely, the selected translations follow a thematic organization. Thus, this first grouping around questions of ethics and the “truth games” through which subjects are formed in relation to the discourses of the human sciences is to be followed by a volume of writings on aesthetic topics, with then a final selection on the theme of “power,” that word which has acquired for many social and cultural theorists a decidedly Foucauldian stamp.

While the organizational logic behind these selected translations is reasonably sound, it may have the unintended effect of exaggerating the barriers separating these topical domains from one another, as if Foucault’s distinctive style of intellectual inquiry did not continually traverse all such disciplinary borders. The chronological sequence found in the French volumes needs no defense but may be less “user- friendly” to a reader not previously well versed in Foucault’s work.

In any case, Rabinow’s careful introduction, which uses the title by which Foucault’s chair at the Collège de France (“The History of Systems of Thought”) was designated, avoids the nonsense one sometimes encounters about “early” and “late” Foucault. He demonstrates through well-chosen examples the continuity of central theoretical and historiographical questions Foucault pursued through three decades.

Rabinow is well placed to issue pronouncements on Foucault’s intellectual legacy. He edited The Foucault Reader (1984), where a few of these selections first appeared in English, and, as a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, served as professional host to Foucault during his several periods there as visiting professor. With his Berkeley colleague Hubert Dreyfus, Rabinow was one of the first American scholars to focus attention on the surprising directions Foucault’s thought was to take in the last years of his life, even as the historical investigation of the culture of pagan and Christian antiquity could still be linked to the questions surrounding the study of modern institutions and systems of thought that made the philosopher’s intellectual reputation.

For Foucault, speculations about his intellectual credo or position and attempts to reconcile seemingly contradictory phases of his work held no interest and were sharply dismissed. He commented in interviews that he wrote books in order to be changed by them, to become a different person. In a famous passage often quoted from his introduction to his 1969 treatise L’Archéologie du savoir (1969; The Archaeology of Knowledge, 1972), Foucault protested, “Do not ask me who I am and do not ask me to remain the same.”

At the same time, and in keeping with Rabinow’s own emphasis, late in his life Foucault assessed his career trajectory as a steady attempt to describe and examine the myriad ways “humans” (he meant Western Europeans almost exclusively) “develop knowledge about themselves.” This could be pursued, and indeed was pursued, equally through the study of the formal discursive practices of the human sciences and the description of the establishment of the institutions (prisons, asylums, hospitals, universities) they...

(The entire section is 2006 words.)