Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth; The Essential Works of Michel Foucault, 1954-1984, Volume I

by Michel Foucault
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2006

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...

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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 undergird.

In Foucault’s major works, distinguished by often stunning rhetorical flourishes, the brutal dissection of the multiple workings of modern technologies of power circulating through specific discourses and realized within what he increasingly saw as the Western cultural construct par excellence, the self or “subject,” can be almost overwhelming and forbidding. The reader further imagines a grim and unforgiving authorial persona responsible for such intellectual detonations.

As a select circle of Foucault’s readers have certainly known for some time, however, the interviews and occasional essays display a more playful, tentative, and welcoming tone. Foucault himself emerges from his interviews as gently self-deprecating and often very funny. If the imposing major works sometimes created the impression that Foucault, despite his disclaimers, really did intend to take up the oracular stance of the “universal” intellectual (à la Voltaire, Victor Hugo, or Jean-Paul Sartre), the pieces collected in the present volume reveal a far more modest sensibility. He explains to Rabinow that he has no real taste for polemics. He laughs in response to an interviewer’s observation that he must be the only French person who genuinely prefers American food to French food. He often emphasizes that he is first and foremost a teacher, someone committed to shared intellectual inquiry rather than a would-be founder of schools or movements. Furthermore, Foucault insisted that to be an academic intellectual meant to be someone in the business of transforming not only others’ thought but one’s own thought as well.

He was also, Rabinow asserts strongly, strongly committed to ethical questions. This is how he will remembered, Rabinow argues. That word “ethics” in the book’s title may surprise some, but it follows from Foucault’s view of intellectual activity. He saw the life of the intellectual—always defined as someone situated in some specific institutional or cultural setting—not as a form of communion with disembodied, abstracted ideas but as deeply experiential: thought deployed in actions. Such actions, he believed, are inherently ethical. Versions of this argument have been rehearsed by a number of literary and cultural theorists in the United States in recent years. One thinks of Edward Said, Paul Bové, Frank Lentricchia, or Stanley Fish, to name some prominent examples.

The concept of ethics is strongly linked to the words of this volume’s subtitle: “subjectivity” and “truth.” What came to interest Foucault more and more was the long and convoluted process whereby the individual (embodied, knowing, speaking, writing) subject came to be the nexus for all relations of power and knowledge, so that the most crucial cultural questions are reduced to questions about individual identity in relation to truth. Who is this person? What is his/her true sex? Truth, sexuality, and identity, Foucault’s work of the 1970’s appeared to show, combined in modern Western history to produce particular relations of power that continue to proliferate and gain in complexity.

Because he had seemed relentlessly to perform a kind of cultural geography of a modern sensibility whose territories would include psychoanalysis and modern psychiatry, criminology, social work, law, and the intricacies of the modern bureaucratic state, Foucault astonished many when he appeared to jettison his research emphasis in favor of harking back to classical antiquity. Yet it was precisely there, in the Hellenistic world that produced both pagan and Christian Stoicism, that Foucault came to believe he had located the ancestry of a long and complicated process whereby Westerners came to view the moral and ethical business of their lives as the task of knowing their “true” selves, caring for and regulating them according to notions of truth. Modernity, with its professional and academic technologies of expertise, has added sophisticated new means of doing this. As this modern version of what the ancients called askesis (which evolved from a pagan Stoic self-governance into a severe Christian self-denial or renunciation) has unfolded, individual human subjects become ever more refined conduits of power: cultural, institutional, governmental.

The dazzling intellectual process by which Foucault traced this long evolution was motivated always by the conviction that the historian’s educational role is one of unlearning. Foucauldian historical inquiry renders present cultural practices unfamiliar by proceeding genealogically, in the Nietzschean sense, to trace the way back to where different assumptions operated. Foucault’s was a sophisticated method of asking, “How did we get to be like this?” In interviews, he moved on to the level of posing the question of whether we can learn no longer to be “like this.” In his earlier books, Foucault’s genealogical backtracking took him into the early modern period. By the time he moved on to his studies of self- formation in relation to sexuality, he had worked his way back over an entire millennium.

The publication of Foucault’s miscellaneous “sayings” (dits) and writings (écrits) provides ample opportunity to take stock of a rich intellectual output and legacy. Familiar patterns begin to emerge that bring home his specific, often eccentric genius. In “Technologies of the Self,” one of the most careful and insightful presentations (first given as a seminar at the University of Vermont in 1982) of his late work in progress, Foucault distinguished between the two kinds of ancient Stoic thought that contributed to the Western preoccupation with the surveillance, regulation, and care of the self. Whether the pagan emphasis was on a balanced, aware self-management or the emerging Christian asceticism that viewed the self as something contaminated that had to be not only mastered but also overcome, it amounts to the same thing in terms of cultural power. The “self” or subject is Western civilization’s own little workshop or laboratory. Whatever view is taken of the self, the fact of preoccupation with subjectivity is the foundation for the growing encroachments of modern “governmentality,” to use Foucault’s term for the Western cultural addiction to regulation and self-policing in all of its forms.

One is immediately reminded of Foucault’s highly original insights into the multiple operations of power. Power, he argued persuasively in his great study on the rise of the prison in modern Western culture, is never merely repressive. Even more important, the relations of power are productive. They both affirm and deny, approve and reprove. If power operated only to limit or constrain, opposition to it would be a simple matter. One can observe the same pattern again in Foucault’s pronouncement about sex and sexuality in modern Western culture. For his purposes, it does not matter whether the discourse is prudish or avowedly erotic. The result is the same: that discussion of sexual matters and the assumption that the truth of one’s sexuality is the deepest personal truth operate to conduct the circulating discourses of what Foucault dubbed power/ knowledge (pouvoir-savoir) through ever more intimate bodily zones, thereby intensifying power’s hold on us, impossible merely to oppose because it is so multiple and complex.

It is ironic, perhaps, that a collection of seemingly disparate works should encourage such a synthesis of Foucault’s thought. One should certainly remember the cautionary concept Foucault introduced of “the author-function,” that which makes readers believe that they know how to label and indeed stereotype all works bearing a particular author’s signature. Some of the information revealed in the interviews collected in this volume may divert readers aware of the more controversial biographical details published about Foucault in recent years. Through intelligent presentation and organization, however, Paul Rabinow has ensured that, from at times seemingly offhand utterances and essays, substantial new insights into an enigmatic but inspiring twentieth century thinker can continue to emerge.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIII, April 15, 1997, p. 1366.

Library Journal. CXXII, March 15, 1997, p. 66.

The Nation. CCLXIV, June 30, 1997, p. 25.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, March 17, 1997, p. 73.

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