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Answering to Foucault June 18, 2009

Posted by Andy in Foucault, Le Courage de la Vérité.
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When I started reading the 1984 lectures, I was hoping that I’d be able to provide a different interpretation to that offered by the likes of McGushin and Bernauer, because their take seemed so unFoucauldian. As my notes have perhaps indicated, I believe these lectures are atypical Foucault in a range of ways that I’m not going into. The point is that some (but not all) of the arguments that made me uncomfortable did originate with Foucault and not his interpreters. So I feel obliged to give an answer to them, because I have taken these issues seriously. So in what follows, I will give my answer to Foucault.

Foucault’s main criticism of Christian monasticism culminated in his sketch of two poles of Christian asceticism: the parrhesiastic pole and the obedience pole. Whereas the former yields a perpetual critique of the now through a self confident fearless speech, the latter establishes a scepticism concerning the self that hinders critique. “Where there is obedience, there may be no parrêsia.” (p307)

My criticism will be twofold: firstly, it is precisely parrhesia, and not obedience, that founds the modern desire to confess. The two interact in a way that resists such an unambiguous (and uncharacteristic for Foucault) distinction. Secondly, the two poles are present in the historical figures that he also sets at the historical source of modern revolution (namely, the Cynics), but are related in an unsatisfactorily vague way. They are also both present amongst the early Christian ascetics, and related in such a way as to resist stagnation and provoke revolution.

Firstly, then, the modern desire to confess. In his earlier work on the history of sexuality, Foucault had established that Europe had generated a desire for confession in its various developments of a scientia sexualis and a range of other games of truth. The desire to confess produces a set of power relations around which strategies of government may be set. The desire to boldly and honestly tell the truth about oneself to a knowledgeable other is complicit with the aims of modern government that I have posted on before. Based on compensation rather than discipline, it encourages people to pursue self-fulfilment and manages the selves that may be fulfilled through human sciences and a flexible administration that adjusts to human development.

The boldness to speak the truth about oneself is a part of this technique, and Foucault says as much towards the beginning of his exposition of parrêsia in general. It is fearless speech (not obedience) that develops into the techniques of spiritual guidance and truth-telling of which he has been so critical:

The study of parrêsia and the parrêsiastês in the culture of the self in the course of Antiquity is obviously a kind of prehistory of the practices that were later organised and developed around certain famous pairs: the penitent and their confessor, the directee and the director of conscience, the invalid and the psychiatrist, the patient and the psycho-analyst. I suppose it is this prehistory, in a sense, that I have tried [to write]. (p9, square brackets original)

For my money, I would argue that these disciplines also make use of obedience and the suspicion of the self, by preliminarily erasing all suspicion of manipulation in hearing boldly spoken truth without judgement whilst relying on an unspoken suspicion of the self to generate the need to confess. Non judgement precedes diagnosis and ultimately command. So the difference between obedience and fearless speech is not one of complete distinction, but one of progression and order.

It seems in any case strange for someone who has written so extensively on the power involved in getting people to boldly speak their own truth to then so unambiguously proclaim the greatness of fearless speech. Nevertheless, Foucault comes dangerously close to this in the final lecture (Bernauer swallows it wholesale in his contribution to Foucault and Theology), and my only excuse on his behalf is that he is perhaps thinking of the parrêsia of the governed in terms of state politics (cf. the interview he gave a couple weeks after this lecture, “An Aesthetics of Existence in Foucault Live, p453) rather than that of the directed person in a therapeutic relationship.

This understanding of confidence vs. scepticism regarding the self plays into the understanding of militant revolutionary practice amongst the Cynics. The Cynics were able to embrace the other life – the refrain “la vie autre” that haunts Foucault’s last lectures this year – by checking themselves, exercising surveillance over themselves (cf. lecture 7). If the Cynics are to be credited with inspiring so much revolutionary and transformatory practice, what is wrong with questioning the self? It appears to be an entirely necessary part of generating the other life: question yourself to see what parts of your life are contingent social practices that you can break loose from. Foucault neither answers this question nor tells us why their surveillance of the whole world is different from the catastrophic universalisation of asceticsim and morality (which he mentions two months later in his last interview “The return of morality”).

This lacuna is all the more problematic when he proceeds to accuse the desert fathers and mothers of the kind of total obedience that undermines revolutionary practice. This is problematic on a series of levels, not least because he fails to identify the practice of total obedience to another  monk as a practice distinct from that of obedience to a code, or an authority. The latter forms can be found in coenobitic monasticism, and the former exclusively in (semi-)anchoritic monasticism. More importantly, the relation between confidence and questioning the self is explicitly reconciled and given a grammar in early Christian ascetic understandings of humility.

Without wanting to go into a great deal of exegesis (I can do that later, if someone’s interested), the basic understanding of humility amongst the desert fathers and mothers at least was such that confidence was necessary to fend of static sadness (what we would call apathy today), and suspicion of the self was necessary to oppose static confidence. The point was that the apatheia that Foucault (in “Omnes and Singulatim“) rather scandalously translates as “obedience” was an active state produced by humility in order to prevent the monk from assuming that he or she had arrived either at the discovery or the achievement of fixed values. Everything can and should be questioned. The demons (and one’s own lazy thoughts) want one to ‘consent to being completely comfortable with one’s own presuppositions.’ This is indeed a revolutionary attitude Foucault praises elsewhere (‘For an Ethic of Discomfort’ in the Power collection).

Obedience contributes to this process by allowing the self to be activated by one value (the truth and validity of one’s master) that is entirely at odds with those of society. To that extent, it produces transgressive, rather than docile conduct. It can also later be transferred to the self. “He who cannot obey himself will be commanded.” (Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: part 2, “Of self-overcoming”, Hollingdale’s translation) It is the way to refusing to be placed.

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