Taking Foucault’s 80s idea of the Self Back to 1970

One of the hoary clichés of the discussion of Foucault, is that his later work on the self is a break with earlier work on structures of discourse, knowledge and disciplinarity.  Foucault’s best known work on disciplinarity, Discipline and Punish (Surveillir et Punir), which appeared in 1975 was preceded by lectures of 1970 and 1971 which deal with the self.  That is lectures which will be published next year in English as The Will to Know, and which have already been published in French as Leçons sur la volonté de savoir.  That is a lecture series that begins one year after Foucault published Archeology of Knowledge, according to some a work of the subordination of subjectivity to impersonal discourse.  It seems to me that if we go back to 1961, that we can the importance that Foucault attached to subjectivity or the self, in History of Madness (also known as Madness and Civilisation and Folie et déraison), where we can see both categorisations of madness and the importance of the self encountering its limits.  It’s certainly not the case that Foucault was saying the same thing throughout his career, but we should avoid assumptions that there are complete breaks.

The 1970/71 lectures also show that Foucault was deeply engaged with Ancient Greek history and thought at that time, preceding and anticipating books and lectures that deal with antique sexuality, care of the self, government, free speaking and subjectivity.  In the 70/71 lectures Foucault is concerned with knowledge rather than those topic, but in any case they all intertwine.  The last part of the 70/71 lectures is concerned with the Sophocles tragedy, Oedipus the King, and the ethical-political issues around kingship which turn up later, when Euripides is more at the centre of discussion.  The discussion of knowledge in the earlier lectures in the 1970/71 series is tied up with the individual as speaker in ethically and politically charged situations as well as an investigation of ways in which truth and falsity are distinguished, along with Aristotle’s approach to judgement.  There is a concern with the possibilities and paradoxes of speaking truth, which anticipates the role Foucault later gives to truth telling in free speaking.  The nature of law, and conflicts about the nature of law, the relation between the divine and human worlds, the place of an image of ‘Oriental’ kingship in relation to ‘Greek’ ideas about limits on power are all at work.

Political economy also enters into the discussion in ways which anticipate governmentality and the mergence of bioethics in the later work.  Foucault discusses the liberatory role of money in antiquity, as what unfreezes relations of servitude and debt, what enables the poor and powerless to have a way out of infinite obligation in the possibilities of finding a finite amount of money to compensate  those with claims on them.  In this part, Foucault could be Adam Smith or Friedrich Hayek celebrating the emancipatory aspects of markets in economic and political terms.  He quotes Marx on fetishism in a money based economy, but this itself becomes what looks like a celebration of the disruption of ‘natural order’ by markets  We should balance that with the interest that Foucault also shows in distributive justice in the ancient Greek cities, where the market is balanced with notions of fair shares of wealth, which limit inequality.  At this point, Foucault looks less close to market oriented thinkers, though we should also note that from a market liberal point of view, some forms of inequality can be see as the result of state power distorting market processes.  Anyway he offers both the discussions of money and of distributive justice, leaving it a rather open question how they can be combined.

The discussion  of Oedipus the King itself suggest a way of dealing with the relation between the self and structures of discourse.  Foucault suggests that the play refers to the excessive nature of Odeipus, who vanishes between the human and divine forms of law. The point is that Oedipus is there, and that the reduction of ethical-political issues to structures excluding the self and its capacities, will always be disrupted by the excessive figure of the king who break taboos, crosses boundaries and challenges laws.  Foucault did not lie talk of his thought being Structuralist at any time, and that is why.

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