Two Types of Government. Foucault’s Lectures on the Government of the Living: 10

Blogging on a very recently published volume of Michel Foucault’s lecture courses at the Collège de France, Du gouvernement des vivants: Cours au Collège de France. 1979-1980 (Paris: Seuil, 2012).

In the lecture of 12th March Foucault makes it clear why the lecture series bears the title ‘government of the living’.  The confessional practice of Christianity means accepting the role of a priest, or spiritual direction, in governing one’s soul.  This is both in contrast and in interactive parallel with government practised by the state.  This is the contrast between voluntary government, in which someone submits by choice to spiritual direction, and the use of state force governing people within a politically defined territory.  The confessional is something strictly voluntary in its origins in the Christianity of last two centuries of the Roman Empire in the west.  It becomes less voluntary over time, particularly during the period of Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Foucault’s account is rather biased towards Catholic experience here since for Protestants confession becomes a general church ritual, or a direct communication with god, not an individual act.  Foucault points out that the seminaries of Counter Reformation Europe demand that students go through confession regularly and have a spiritual director to supervise this.  There is a final stage of institutionalisation of confession, which Foucault hints connects with stat organisation of the time.

Foucault refers to a limit in which the voluntary submission of the subject to government of the soul becomes a political utopia.  The examples he gives are one pre-Christian, Plato’s Republic and one Counter-Reformation, Thomas More’s Utopia.  More was a Lord Chancellor (roughly the Prime Minister) under Henry VIII in the early stages of the English Reformation, who became a martyr when he refused to reject the authority of the Pope.   His book Utopia is the first example of the use of that word to refer to an political community.  Foucault is  suggesting that such thought is a denial of  individual autonomy and not therefore to be desired, but is also hinting that such ‘totalitarian’ utopias are rooted in a tradition of voluntary obedience to a spiritual director, and therefore have a non-sinister basis of seeking an improved relation of the self with itself.

Foucault emphasises that the government of souls (the living) in confession is not pure product of Christianity.  It has antique Greek and Roman roots he takes back to the Pythagoreans and to Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus the King.  Oedipus engages in a drama of self-revelation which is also a search for cleansing of the self.  The Pythagoreans represent the earliest philosophical-spiritual school of the Greeks which includes the mission to assist members in self care.  Foucault does not wish to merge the Pagan and Christian traditions, he established what he thinks distinguishes them.  That gives us two distinctions between two types of government.  The distinction between voluntary government  and involuntary government, and then the distinction within voluntary government between Pagan and Christian types.  The Pagan type is concerned with rational self-control, the Christian type with spiritual transformation.

He explains the Pagan version with regard to Seneca, a favourite references in his various discussions of the care of the self.  In Seneca, Foucault sees an interest in control which prevents disturbance including disturbance to sleep.  The Senecan type of government is one in which we seek help in maintaining the self as a continuous self, which is rational, which is not disturbed, and is trying to preserve itself rather than become spiritually perfected.  The Christian type of government tries to disrupt the self which is inclined towards sin, and break with that through a penance that is the death of our lesser self.  The goal is not reason but spiritual perfection.  Seneca tries to teach us how to remain rational and avoid disturbance.  The Christian goal is to push at the limits of rationality and disturb our own complacency.  The Pagan approach is oriented towards the day hat has passed, towards reviewing it in a  non-disturning way.  In aiming to preserve reason and calm, the Pagan approach is aiming finally to preserve autonomy which means the control of the self by reason.  The Christian approach aims for faith and for the death of the old self, so that the act of penance, the verbalisation of sin is a way in which we distance ourselves from sin, and present ourselves as pure.  The verbalisation of sin, of inner states in Christianity, is in contrast with the Pagan tendency to observe the self, including its dreams, in an objectified way which preserves the unity and continuity of the self.  The two approaches represent different accounts of subjectivity, its self relation, and its relation with truth.  The Pagan approach is concerned with a unity of knowledge and memory, in which the concern is with knowledge rather than with states of the soul.  The Christian approach is concerned with intentions of the individual, with future states of the soul.

Penitence, Confession, Juridical Form. Foucault’s Lectures on the Government of the Living: 9

Blogging on a very recently published volume of Michel Foucault’s lecture courses at the Collège de France, Du gouvernement des vivants: Cours au Collège de France. 1979-1980 (Paris: Seuil, 2012).

In the lecture of 5th March Foucault continues with the theme of how the early Christian church, about the time it becomes institutionalised as the religion of the Roman Empire, and until the fall of the Empire in the west, deals with the problem of penitence after baptism.  The problem is that baptism is supposed to be the beginning of  anew life, in which subjectivity of the individual and truth from God belong together.  Given that, it is hard to explain how there can be sin after baptism, and how there can be any kind of acceptable penance.  One response is just to expel the sinner from the church, but this is not a very practical policy, and in practice what the church did was to develop ways of having acceptable penance for sins committed after baptism.  The notion of sin itself is dependent on being a member of the Christian community, on breaking God’s laws as previousşy accepted by that individual.

The appropriate form of penance becomes institutionalised and ritualised as the Catholic sacrament of confession.  Confession has a juridical form, a law like form of rules and expected behaviour.  Christianity has an antinomian (anti-law) element in its understanding of its truth as beyond law, but also needs some law-lie aspect to deal with the inevitable lapses by members of the community.  Foucault’s overall interest includes the way that the law lie aspects of confession feed in state law and judicial practice.  Confession is one way of reconciling the lapses of the baptised Christian with the claims that baptism is what enables divine truth to enter the subject.  Confession is a repetition of the penance in baptism.  It is a repetition which extends the asceticism of monks and hermits into the universal experience of Christians.  Foucault here refers to the early Christian tendency to produce hermits who disappear into the wilderness to purify themselves and communicated with God from a position of isolation in relation to the human community.  The isolated asceticism itself becomes the source of community, with the formation of monastic communities in which asceticism is practised in groups according to rules of that order.

The ascetic practices of self-examination, search for inner truth, and communication with God, become the model for confession as a practice of all Christians.  In these times it is practised in a more public way than later when confession takes place in a very private way, addressing a priest hidden behind a grille.  The early confessions take place by the church door and can be overheard in the church.  They are associated with acts of asceticism and supplication for forgiveness.  Foucault links the supplication with pre-Christian antique practices of supplication towards Pagan gods and human overlords.    )n this case we are talking about begging for forgiveness, which can include dramatic elements, like wearing sack cloth and ashes.  This is a drama of truth, of the truth of what is inside the subjectivity of the sinner, and the truth of God which the sinner has overlooked.

These dramas of penance produce a paradox.  Penance includes the avowal by the sinner of humility, of the status of mere sinner.  However, the act of penance including the statement of confession is a distancing from penitent status, a claim not to be a sinner any more.  This is the enunciation of a statement acting on the content of the enunciation.  Acts of penance and identifying myself as a mere sinner is a way of claiming to be without sin.  Foucault sees in this already the famous religious hypocrite of Molière 17th century play Tartuffe.  There is a division of the self in penance-confession between the sinner and the purified individual, which can express itself in cynicism of the non-philosophical type, a claim to be good through exaggerated claims to be a sinner.

There is a double death in penance-confession: the claim that sin is death, and the death of that death through penance.  Again subjectivity is developed in ways which are rooted in pre-Christian ideas of care of the self.  The double death complicates and intensifies that self-relation.  I experience death within myself and then a death of that death.  Baptism itself is death of the of life, so there is a repetition of the death of baptism in penance-confession. The absoluteness of baptism is questioned, as is the substantive nature of any of these experience since they are all based on repetition and can be repeated.  The baptism is transformed into the basis of a way of life that is conditioned by constant death and the attempts of the self to navigate these interruptions to the continuity of the self.

Law, Fault and Sin. Foucault’s Lectures on the Government of the Living: 8

Blogging on a very recently published volume of Michel Foucault’s lecture courses at the Collège de France, Du gouvernement des vivants: Cours au Collège de France. 1979-1980 (Paris: Seuil, 2012).

In the lecture of 27th February Foucault deals with difficulties in early Christianity regarding sin after baptism.  Christianity starts by emphasising that baptism is a unique chance to repent for sins, and that no chance comes after baptism.  This leaves Christianity of that time in difficulties in how to explain the reality that Christian sin after baptism, and given that reality leaves the  awkward possibility that there is no way back for a Christian who sins after baptism, that such a person loses the chance for a eternal life, and nothing can be done about it.  This difficulty explains why many early Christian, including the first Christian Emperor Constantine, left baptism as late as possible, trying to delay it until the death bed so as not waste the once only offer of salvation.

It was awkward beyond the difficulty that those who were baptised might waste their chance of heavenly bliss.  Baptism included the assumption of a relation between subject and truth which was established by the ceremony which lets in divine truth.  If that relation is established the subject cannot choose to give up truth, or we can certainly not make sense of such a choice.  Foucault is here playing on continuity between Greek and Roman philosophical assumptions that we cannot will to harm ourselves deliberately turn away from brings us good.  So early Christianity we could say (my comment on Foucault) remains within previous assumptions about agency and moral psychology which do not allow for such a turning away of the self from what it knows to be good and true.

One source  of pressure on the  Christian point of view comes from the Gnostics, (who had a considerable following amongst the Roman upper class, or the related position of Manicheanism did, a position which Augustine of Hippo held to for a while).  Gnosticism regards the world as evil and as created by an evil deity.  The material world is not a place of struggle between good and evil, as it is for Christians, but is just evil.  The gnostic then is pure and outside that evil with no turning back.  The suggestion in Foucault is that this helps push Christianity towards antinomianism, that is the assumption that believers are above moral law, because  by definition they cannot do anything against moral law.  Those actions which appear to be against moral law cannot in fact be against moral law.  Christianity does not put forward Antinomianism in a pure form, but it does make a transition from earlier ideas of fault in law, which are present in Greek tragedy, to to idea of sin.  Fault in breaking law, including what is divine law for pagans, does not touch the subject who is a Christian (or Gnostic).  That subject may sin, which is a fall from the position achieved by baptism.  Baptism contains penance for all sins, creating someone who contains divine truths.  Someone who acts against Christianity sins in rejecting that state, or at least impairing it.

The idea of sin is an outrage for pre-Christian Greeks and Romans who focus on the idea of fault in breaking a law, whether intentionally or accidentally.  Foucault looks at St Paul’s remark that we know sin through law, which suggests that law itself leads to sin.  This is ambiguous between saying that we know sin because law creates sin, and that law is what enables us to know of sin.  In any case, Paul’s remark is part of the basis for distinguishing between the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) as a text of law from the New Testament as a text of truth beyond law.  What the idea of truth beyond law allows for is not just a  possible threat to the laws of the Roman Empire, but a distinction between individual truth and moral law.  The sin of Christianity may be a different matter from breaking the moral and legal codes of the Hebrew Bible.  Sin is what belongs to those who are already baptised and allows for the confusion created by the devil to still afflict those who have been ritually introduced into the Christian community.

There is a double teaching in early Christianity.  Those who have not yet been baptised are told this is the one chance to become pure, and show penance.  Those who have been baptised are taught that there are ways of seeking forgiveness for sins committed after community membership has been established.  Foucault mentions the idea of a jubilee (which originally came from the Hebree Bible where it refers to a year in which property is returned and debts are cancelled).  Foucault does not expand on the idea of jubilee here, but may do so in future lectures.

Truth, Catechism and Surveillance. Foucault’s Lectures on the Government of the Living: 7

Blogging on a very recently published volume of Michel Foucault’s lecture courses at the Collège de France, Du gouvernement des vivants: Cours au Collège de France. 1979-1980 (Paris: Seuil, 2012).

The lecture of 20th February deals with Baptism in early Christianity.  The main point of reference is Tertullian who plays a large part in preceding lectures.  The issue f Baptism is one of dealing with otherness in the self, which as was discussed in the previous lecture has reference to the devil.  However, it also has reference to the transformation that the Christian receives in receiving God within.  What is received is truth, but must refer to a subjectivity which apparently did not have that truth before but becomes open to truth.  Foucault refers to this as a problem already present in Paganism, apparently referring to the more mystery religion aspects of antique Paganism where believers undergo some secret ritualised experience which puts them in touch with a higher truth.  One difference between Paganism and Christianity, presumably, is that the issue of transformation is much more total in Christianity, referring to a divine-cosmic structure and drama which affects everyone.  Foucault sees early ideas of Baptism developing in relation to paganism in various ways.  There is the persecution that Christian experienced from pagan Roman Emperors, and the need to compete with Pagan religions in gathering converts.  Given that Pagan religions often have an initiation rite, Christianity needs to math and exceed those rites in power.  The conversion of adults to Christianity in adulthood rises further questions about what it is.

Baptism, particularly as part of adult conversion, has to deal with the problem of how truth can be recognised, welcome and incorporated into the self.  This is part of a general problem of antique thought, which is that of establishing a connection between truth and subjectivity, an issue which comes up in previous lectures.   Foucault is  possibly a bit ambiguous between saying that there are various kinds of truth including the more subjective kinds; and saying there is a gap between subjectivity and and the objective nature of truth.  I don’t there is any great incoherence though.  Any case of where we may refer to the truth of something refers to the ideas of what is objective compared to subjective experience.  A report of the truth about my inner state is something that has more stability, more objectivity, and more universality, than my pure subjective impressions at any one moment.  The act of reporting on those sensations is to create something less pure subjective, the statement designed to be understood by others.  This is very relevant to what Foucault means by the transformations of inner self and experiences of the entry of truth in the case of baptism.

Baptism requires the entry of a hitherto unperceived truth, which refers to a transformation of inner experience of truth which amounts to a new life.  The idea that Christ calls us to a new life is familiar in Christianity, and applies to those born into a Christian community who have not fully previously properly embraced Christianity, as well as those converted from Paganism in Roman antiquity.  Foucault points out that from early on the double life, the move from one life to another, brings in death.  The new life means the end of the old life which means death.  The idea of death is necessary to the rebirth of baptism, and to Christianity as such.  Christianity demands the death of the old life, in a way which foreshadows the hope of eternal life after our physical death.  The death within life creates an ambiguous situation since life becomes double, and that duality never disappears since we are struggling against the devil, against worldliness and so on.

Foucault argues that another duality is necessary to Christianity from its early days, which is that between my own efforts to find salvation and the grace, or truth, which God gives me.  The relation between those two things is a major issue in Christianity, at the heart of splits, claims of heresy and so on.  Not only is it a major theological issue, it refers to issues about what the self is (which shows the power of debates about what might appear  from a limited perspective to be debates only relevant to Christian believers).  As Foucault wants to show us, Christian ideas come out of earlier discussion of self-relationship, of the care of the self.  How we understand that is affected by how we understand the relation between what comes from inner choice and what comes from forces beyond the control of conscious choice.  An important part of dealing with the relation between types of truth, types of life, inner choice and external force operating within the mind, is the catechism, according to Foucault.  The catechism is a part of Catholic tradition, referring to the basic explanations the Church makes of its doctrines, and the way it teaches those doctrines through getting young Catholics preparing for confirmation (a childhood ritual to establish complete membership of the Catholic church for those baptised as infants) and instructing converts.  The method is that of question and answer, in which the initiate learns to give the appropriate answers various questions about fundamental church doctrines, so learns how to express those doctrines as part of an inner subjective point of view.  Foucault describes these processes as a form of surveillance, so invoking to his work on prison as a model institution in Discipline and Punish (Surveiller et punir)  This arises as a brief remark in the lecture, but does suggest the quite  big thought that his work on ‘disciplinarity’ (‘surveillance’ is much better, sounds much less like some dismal academic argot) since the Enlightenment refers to a series of historical steps  which has  early form in the Christian version of ‘care of the self’.

Christian Renunciation and Illumination. Foucault’s Lectures on the Government of the Living: 6

Blogging on a very recently published volume of Michel Foucault’s lecture courses at the Collège de France, Du gouvernement des vivants: Cours au Collège de France. 1979-1980 (Paris: Seuil, 2012).

In the lecture of February 13th, Foucault focuses on early Christian ideas of Baptism, along with associated notions of sin, confession and so on.  His account partly uses a contrast between Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian.  I’m too ignorant of these two Church Fathers to deal with this.  I would be using an account of texts which I have not read, a hazardous enterprise, so I won’t make any further reference to those two.

Foucault sees Baptism as containing a contradiction.  I should say something about what Baptism is for those from non-Chritian cultures, end even those from Christian cultures who have a secular upbringing and life.  Baptism is a ceremony (a sacrament even) which brings a baby into the Christian community, in which the baby is anointed with holy water (water blessed by a priest).  The ceremony contains references to renouncing Satan which Foucault mentions.  What I am referring to here is the Catholic ceremony, which would be the form most familiar to Foucault.  I’m not competent to say much about variations in all Christian denominations, but I believe all practice baptism.  Some Protestant emphasise adult Baptism, on the grounds that a baby cannot understand and consent to Christian doctrine.  Adult baptism can be a new demonstration of faith for those who have always belonged to that religious community, and it can be for adult converts.  These adult ceremonies typically involve immersion of the whole body in the water of a river.

The ceremony of baptism itself goes bad to a New Testament incident where Christ is baptised by the holy man, John the Baptist, so as Foucault points out was applied to Christ by someone whose teaching preceded the formation of Christianity.  As Foucault also points out, the importance of water in the ceremony refers back to Moses, who found as a baby  in a basket in a river, and who held back the Red Sea, so that the Israelites could escape from bondage in Egypt.  The ceremony also includes the more abstract idea of the Holy Spirt entering the soul of the baptised subject.  The Holy Spirit is part of the trinity, the idea that God is three in one, which also includes Christ the Son and God the Father.  Most Christians are Trinitarians, but there are some who are not including Unitarians.  The Holy Spirit is the aspect of God which communicates God’s message.

Foucault looks at the oddity noted above that Christ was baptised, though baptism is part of the teaching of Christianity and so cannot be administered by someone who is not a Christian, and John could not be a Christian since he was in business as a holy man before Christ started preaching his own message.  Foucault notes that this problem came up in early Christian writing and a solution was offered.  The solution being that baptism has a dual nature and that John had only performed baptisms which included the first nature.  That first aspect is renunciation, renunciation of sin, of the world and of Satan.    The second aspect is illumination with the word, love and light of God, which is only possible after the first stage.

What is renounced in us as satan  is otherness within us according to Foucault.  That is Satan is what enters us from outside to deceive us and distract us from God and goodness.  The idea of Satan itself brings up ambiguities within Christian belief according to Foucault.  Christianity since its early years, and maybe particularly in its early years has dealt with a tension between a soul that is pure and a soul that is always stained by the material world.  The second position has some traces of Platonism and Gnosticism, that is the position in which the material world is deeply flawed, rather than belonging fully to the greatness of divine creation.  The first position allows for the innocence of the infant soul which is baptised, while the second position is mıre trouble d by a position in which the soul can ever be pure in the material world.  The attempted resolution of those two positions in Christianity which have precedents in pre-Christian thought (the Hebrew Bible on one side; Platonist philosophical texts and Gnostic religious texts on the other side) comes through Satan.  Satan can enter the soul, though the soul is by its nature pure (and Satan was an angel who rebelled while dwelling in Heaven).  Satan is what we do not believe to be part of the soul, or our real soul.  Our real soul, by its nature, does not need the worldly pleasures and values that Satan tempts us towards.  Satan marks the ways we do things, want things, and thinks about things,which our soul rejects when it is true to itself.  

Foucault’s account of Satan, as the other in the soul, intersects with the Christian belief in separation of soul and body, and the contamination of the soul by the body.  Baptism is a way in which Christianity tries to resolve these issues by allowing for the innocence of a baptised child, and of illumination following renunciation.  Christianity adds to the ascetic renunciation that is in John the Baptist’s teaching, by allowing for the soul to be flooded by God through the Holy Spirit as a consequence of renunciation, of separation from the inner otherness of Satan, even if it is  a renunciation by proxy and must be undermined by our fallen nature.  Baptism tries to reconcile the fallen nature of existence in the material world, appearing in Christianity as sin inherited from the Edenic Fall, with the Christian hope of grace from God which allows perfection even in this material fallen existence.  All of this builds on pre-Christian notions of subjectivity, care of the self, and the self-relation of the self, which Foucault wrote about at some length.

Truth, Science and Religion. Foucault’s Lectures on the Government of the Living: 5

Blogging on a very recently published volume of Michel Foucault’s lecture courses at the Collège de France, Du gouvernement des vivants: Cours au Collège de France. 1979-1980 (Paris: Seuil, 2012).

The lecture of February 6th moves between discussions of truth in general and the understanding of truth in early Christianity.  In his remarks on truth in general, Foucault defends what we can call a pluralist view of truth.  There is no single definition of truth, there are different regimes of truth.  The explanation of this point leads Foucault from social questions to discussions of the history of philosophy, and of the nature of logic.  The idea of regimes of truth is compared with political and legal regimes.  These are clear in the sense that they apply to a territory where some entity is sovereign, and has the power to enforce political and legal decisions, what is usually known as the state.  The state is not engaged in deciding what is true, or what the truth is in that way.  Decisions about what is true are too numerous and diverse for the issue of a state regime to arise, even where the state is enforcing its power in an extreme way. Truth does enter into state regimes and sovereignty as we can see with the role of confession in the state criminal justice system.

The diverse natıre of the situations in which we can say there are truths in the social context, or different methods of finding  leads Foucault to more general considerations of truth.  He refers to the letters of Benedict de Spinoza with regard to the idea of the the truth which is true of itself, which is the index of itself.  Foucault considers this to have limited application.  He does not reject the idea that the definition of truth must be true of itself (though he is perhaps sceptical about this, it is certainly an issue worth exploring).  The issue is that the truth as a general definition is not king, by which Foucault means it does not adequately cover all the ways we can speak of truth.  Truth is often used in the context of an avocation, witnessing or inner report of some kind, which is an act of communication that creates truth in the act of communication.  My saying I believe something, or something is true on the basis of what I have observed is not open to challenge in  the same way as some other truths are from a neutral position, outside the subjectivity of the individual using that truth referring language.  The religious confessional communication that Foucault deals with in these lectures is a major example of that kind of truth.

Foucault compares these more subjective kinds of truth with truth in Descartes’ Cogito’ and truth in logic.  As I noted in the last post, Foucault discussed Descartes in his first book History of Madness (also known as Madness and Civilisation), which became the subject of a bad tempered debate with Jacques Derrida, who had been his student (apparently on a psychology course at the École normale supérieure ), coming out of Derrida’s long review article ‘Cogito and the History of Madness’, which claimed Foucault had misread Descartes, or at least had missed something that Derrida had noticed.  In the present context, Foucault’s concern is with the famous sentence in Descartes’ Mediations, often referred to in English through its Latin version (Descartes wrote in both French and Latin, and French editions sometimes contain both), Cogito ergo sum.  That Latin sentence translates as ‘I think therefore I am’.  Descartes focuses on the French version, asking the questions: what does ‘therefore’ means? How do we know that it is truthful in this context?  The claim that if I think I must exit, seems obvious, but as others have asked before Foucault, what is the ‘therefore’ doing?  What does it add or smuggle in as unargued assumptions to the connection between my thoughts and my existence? The overall point here is to question the idea of absolute unquestionable truths, particularly as pertaining to issues of subjective experience.

Foucault moves onto a discussion of truth in logic, where it has to be said it does not show any knowledge of formal logic.  This certainly distinguishes Foucault from Paul Feyerabend, who as I mentioned in the last post, is mentioned favourably by Foucault in the context of anarchy in knowledge.  Truth in logic is something that Foucault treats as part of a game, and a  constraint within that game.  I don’t see anything incorrect with what Foucault says there, but does get into any discussion of formalism, use any examples or note any differences of views about logic.  Foucault denies what he regards as the Positivist claim that the definition  of truth is exhausted by logic, and emphasises plurality of kinds of truth, referring bad to the idea of archaeology which he explored at length in is 1969 book, Archaeology of Knowledge.

He also denies a complete separation between ideas of knowledge and politics.  There are always political issues about what ind of knowledge exist, and how knowledge is used, and politics itself must rely on ideas of what is known to be the case, and therefore of what knowledge is.  The different ways in truth can become manifest are to some degree tied up with different forms of power, institution and state.  These are issues that Foucault explored at length elsewhere, the best known example is Discipline and Punish, which brings us back to the idea of confession in Foucault.  The Christian origins of ‘confession’ is taken back by Foucault to one of the founders, Tertullian in this lecture.  Foucault sees Tertullian as combining three kinds of truth in Christianity: the truth of Baptism (the innocence point of view of the young who have washed away sins in the Baptismal water and been brought into a Christian community of truthful behaviour); the truth of the choice between good and evil (truth and falsity); the truth of the Fall (loss of goodness/truth) and the struggle of the Christian to overcome evil/falsity.  Evil and falsity are linked because the devil is a deceiver and the good Christian is truthful, including the meticulous truthfulness of confession.  Foucault refers to the Christian attitude to truth as arising out of Pagan antique concerns with the care of the self, and the active relationship of the self with itself, which Foucault explored in various places including History of Sexuality: Volume Three.

Oedipus and Anarchy. Foucault’s Lectures on the Government of the Living: 4

Blogging on a very recently published volume of Michel Foucault’s lecture courses at the Collège de France, Du gouvernement des vivants: Cours au Collège de France. 1979-1980 (Paris: Seuil, 2012).

In the lecture of 30th January, Foucault continues to discuss Oedipus the King, but also gets into more general discussions.  He addresses the question of knowledge, and its connection wit questions of power.  He suggests that his position can be regarded as ‘anarcheology’, that is as a fusion of anarchy and archaeology.  Archaeology refers to his 1969 book, Archeology of Knowledge, which gives his view of discourse, knowledge, and history of ideas and evidently to the idea of anarchy, of a lack of government.  Foucault refers to the 2accusation’ that his theory of power is anarchic, and does not deny it, but does not exactly embrace the label of political anarchist either.  He more treats the idea of anarchy as part of a sceptical approach to power and government, so the anarchy is an intellectual instrument rather than a program for a stateless society.

On the issue of anarchy as method of knowledge, Foucault refers briefly to the work of Paul Feyerabend, the philosopher of science probably best known for his 1975 book, Against Method.  As it happens the Canadian philosopher of science, Ian Hacking, who has taken a  great deal of interest in Foucault, wrote the introduction to the most recent (2010) edition of Against Method.  I have the 1993 edition on my shelves, and have yet to read the Hacking introduction, which I must do soon to see if it does contain any discussion of a possible connection between the epistemologies of Foucault and Feyerabend.  In Against Method, Feyerabend suggests that anarchy is a bad political position but is a good position in knowledge.  There is no method of knowledge, no empirical or  theoretical basis for selecting scientific theories, because ‘anything goes’ and the best method is to try as many different methods as possible.  Foucault raises Feyerabend’s in contrast with brighter burning names he does not mention.  This could be a jibe at Derrida.  Derrida’s earlier texts contain some discussion of knowledge and social science, including a discussion of Foucault’s own book History of Madness (also known as Madness and Civilisation), ‘Madness and Cogito’ which appears in Derrida’s Writing and Difference.  Derrida had been a student of Foucault and Foucault seems to have been particularly touchy about what he perceived as a slight on his philosophical competence.  Apparently Foucault maintained a personally unfriendly attitude until the 1981 episode in which Derrida was arrested in Prague.  Foucault had always been a critic of soviet socialism and was apparently particularly sympathetic to Derrida’s contacts with Prague dissidents.  Of Grammatology, Margins of Philosophy, Voice and Phenomenon, and Introduction to Husserl’s Essay on the Origin of Geometry could all be considered as contributions to an epistemology which undermines all claims to a unified method of knowledge.

In his discussion of anarchy, Foucault refers to the desire to be sceptical of power and the claims of power, he is contesting any claim that power is inevitable, that there is no other way in which power could have been exercised.  He is firmly dismissive of any idea of a social contract, that is any idea that power is justified by an agreement of all members of society.  The social contract theory is itself a product of Medieval juridification, that is the growth of church and state law during the Middle Ages to some degree stimulated by the discovery of the Institutes of Justininian. So in that case, no concept of a super code of law adopted in the transition fr0m nature to culture can be adopted  underlying government and laws.  So for Foucault there is no theory of what is often known as political obligation, that is reasons for obeying government and following the law.

Getting back to Oedipus the King, Foucault refers to the lac of punishment of Oedipus when it is revealed that he polluted the city by unknowingly killing his father and marrying his mother. Oedipus punishes himself through self-inflicted blinding and exile from Thebes.  However, this is not a punishment imposed on Oedipus by the city of Thebes it is Oedipus fleeing from the horror of the situation.  The important thing from the political point of view, from the point of view of the city, is that truth appears.  There is a progression in the play from spectator of truth to witness to truth and finally to confession of truth.  Oedipus himself is aware of the truth when Tiresias explains it in a prophetic-divine mode, but can only accept truth through witnessing, through discussion with those who can report directly on what happened, and then Oedipus can confess.  The stage of the witnessing shows the process of ‘subjectivation’, of the formation of subjectivity through awareness that it is something that can witness truth.  The harmonisation of truth with power is shown to be necessary to the city state.  From Foucault’s point of view, power will always be denying truth in some way, which is where the anarchy becomes relevant.  .

The process of confession is reinforced in medieval Christianity, with increasing demands for thoroughness and complete truth, so that it is structured in such a way as to be legal in form, so connecting religious confession with juridification.  Foucault finishes with the comments of the late Antique Pagan philosopher Philo of Alexandria, who commented on the Hebrew Bible.  Foucault notes that he reads the text in a way that seems to force it into a pattern, but also reveals the way in which there is a commın understanding of the desire for power based on truth, which is experienced in the importance of the sun, of illumination and brightness.  Truth must be revealed as what overcomes  a fault and avoids the need for punishment.  Reformation Protestantism is mentioned by Foucault as what tries to harmonise inner confessional truth with eternal truths through reducing the sort institutional mediation of the church, which as at the basis of Catholicism.

Foucault’s Lectures on the Government of the Living: 3

Blogging on a very recently published volume of Michel Foucault’s lecture courses at the Collège de France, Du gouvernement des vivants: Cours au Collège de France. 1979-1980 (Paris: Seuil, 2012).

The lecture of 23rd January 1980 continues Foucault’s discussion of Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus the King.  During this lecture to word Sophocles uses for king becomes significant, he is Oedipus tyrannos rather than Oedipus basileus.  Basileus is the Greek king who has his position according to law, while the tyrannos rose to power in a less regular way, with the title sometimes preserved for the son of such a person, even though that is inheritance of monarchical power in the normal way.  Over time trannos acquires the sense of evil abuser of power we are used to now.  The differences in the two senses is evident in Sophocles’ own time, since he does not use the word in an obviously negative way, though Plato and then Aristotle did in the same era.  Foucault’s suggestion is that bot views are at play in the tragedy in question.

We could also add that Sophocles must have been thinking of political events, institutions and personalities in the Athens of his time.  No doubt there are many possible suggestions of how to read Oedipus the King on these lines, but one with which I am familiar is that the most famous leader of Athenian democracy, Pericles is represented by Oedipus.  Pericles led Athens into the Peloponnesian War with Sparta, and took Athenian citizens from outside the city behind the city walls during the war.  This had some military advantages, but led to a plague in which Pericles himself died.  For aristocratic republicans of antiquity, in a tradition that goes right up to the late eighteenth centıry and the generation of the American Founding Fathers, democracy leads to tyranny as the  people tend to flock behind a strong man careless of established rights and law.  There is a strong element of that in Plato’s discuss,on of political theory, though he also seems to have had considerable respect for Pericles as an individual.  Foucault himself notes that tyrants played a role in the founding of Greek democracies.

Returning to Foucault’s analysis of Oediopus, he contrasts Creon and Oedipus as representatives of different versions of kingly power.  Creon is the legitimate heir to the throne of his father Laius but is usurped by Oedipus on the basis that Oedipus defeated the Sphinx threatening Thebes.  So Oedipus is a tyrant in the positive sense.  He is the tyrant and Creon is the man who should have been king.  Foucault likes the speech Creon gives when Oedipus accuses him of seeking to overthrow him by encouraging the story that Oedipus killed Laius.  What Oedipus and Creon do not know at the beginning of the play is that Oedipus did kill Laius, and even worse is the son of Laius and Jocasta, so that his marriage to Jocasta is a polluting event  against divine law.  Creon’s defence is that he has the same status as Oedipus without the worrying responsibilities.  Foucault regards this as a Sophistical speech in which what he says resembles the truth, but is not the truth.  Foucault further suggests that Creon lacks the capacity for self government if he lacks the responsibility for the techne or art of government that Oedipus has.  So Creon is a less formed self-limiting and regulating character than Oedipus.

Foucault reefers to the play as a movement between two kinds of truth represented by Oedipus, two of the claims to truth which are always at issue in justifying political power.  The first kind of truth is in Oedipus’ defeat of the Sphinx by solving the riddle of the Sphinx.  The defeat of the riddler monster is a matter of rhetorical truth rather than absolute truth.  It is a trick of discourse, not a revelation of real truth.  In that case, Oedipus’ rise to power refers to the role of rhetoric in political power as a negative aspect.  Absolute truth becomes an issue when Oedipus finally finds that the claim of Tiresias that he polluted Thebes is correct and in a very horrifying way.  The tyrant falls at the point at which absolute truth appears, tyranny is in some way the denial of truth.  Oedipus is not a wicked tyrant simply receiving justified punishment though.  He is a victim of the role of tyrant which he assumed on bringing a genuine benefit to the city.  It is that role of benefactor which makes Oedipus’ sacrifice for the sake of the city necessary, in order to free it from all pollution.

What is the truth of the tyrant?  Foucault brings in hieratic truth, the truth of gods and prophets linked to old forms of kingship before the notion of a tyrant appears.  That is the Greek world as represented in Homer and Hesiod.  That is the truth of what is proclaimed as truth.  The proclamation itself establishes the truth of the statement, and the truth comes form a divine place beyond the speaker.  This like the way that the Homeric poet claims to speak on behalf of Memory in a divine sense, not on behalf of individual experience and creativity.  Oedipus starts from that position, which is the position of the prophet Tiresias.  The other kind of truth is the truth of subjective experience and witnessing where ‘I” speak on behalf of ‘myself’, not divine-kingly authority.  Foucault connects that with the ‘first historian’, Herodotus who was a contemporary of  Sophocles.  Herodotus does not write of divinely revealed truths but on behalf of eye witness reports (even if many are famously unreliable).  Oedipus stands between the two kinds of truth, ending with the second kind, just as he stands between two versions of political power.  The difficulty of reconciling opposing forces, the death of the individual in that conflict is what gives us tragedy.

Foucault’s Lectures on the Government of the Living: 2

Blogging on a very recently published volume of Michel Foucault’s lecture courses at the Collège de France, Du gouvernement des vivants: Cours au Collège de France. 1979-1980 (Paris: Seuil, 2012).

The lecture of 16th January 1980 is on Sophocles’s tragedy Oedipus the King, which Foucault discusses in a few other places as well.  What he refers to here is the place of knowledge of truth in power and the status of tragedy as a drama of truth.  He refers this idea back to Plato, without going into Plato’s criticisms of tragedy.

Foucault discusses the different ways that truth appears in Oedipus as the play  moves from the plague afflicting Thebes to Oedipus’ fall when the truth that his transgressions, killing his father and marrying his mother, though accidental, have polluted the city.  The search for truth starts with the level of the divine, as Oedipus asks the seer Tiresias what the cause of the plague is.  Tiresias is unwilling to give the truth, and Oedipus does not believe him when he does tell the truth.  Tiresias is brother of Apollo, the god of light.  Foucault emphasises the idea that the gods see all and that the divine illuminates the world.  There is some phenomenological language here and in other parts of the lecture.  Phenomenology is the philosophy of appearance, and the structure of appearance since the time of Edmund Husserl and some of his teachers.  Foucault was familiar with Husserl’s philosophy and with that of Husserl’s student Heidegger.  Though Foucault’s university teachers included the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, despite which Foucault’s tributes to Phenomenology tend to be indirect, through using some of its ideas, rather than explicitly building on it.  When he comments on Phenomenology, he tends to refer to it as a kind of subjective humanism, in which the world is defined by the appearances in the consciousness of the subject.  The idea of truth as something that appears while hiding itself, can be found in Heidegger, and is at play here, though again Foucault does not say so directly.

The divine truth of Apollo-Tiresias does not succeed in revealing truth to Oedipus and the community of Thebes.  It is a truth which is proclaimed by the god or seer, as what ‘I’ say is true.  That is what characterises that kind of truth and is what makes it inadequate.  Foucault thinks of the plays as dealing with the role of oracles and divination in the society of his time.  The whole of Greece shared the Oracle at Delphi, which claimed to communicate the thoughts of Apollo, and which provided a focus for Greek identity.  Less famous oracles existed within the various states of Greece.

Another level of truth comes from the discourse between Oedipus and his wife/mother Jocasta.  The marriage is the unşon of two families, though in this case it is unknowingly the union within the nuclear family.  This has its own level of truth which fails, since Oedipus and Jocasta resist seeing where the evidence leads.  As with Tiresias’ proclamation, the evidence is there of the transgression but Oedipus cannot recognise it.  Creon, brother of  both Jocasta and Oedipus, provides another related attitude to truth.  Creon asserts that Oedipus’ accusation that Creon manipulated Tiresias to serve his own ambition of becoming king , is false.  Foucault takes the simple denial as an aspect of aristocratic truth, which can be explicitly guaranteed through swearing an oath.  The noble believes that his word is its own guarantee because of his elevated status and character, something he may emphasise through swearing an oath.  Truth does not emerge in this way.  Creon is correct in saying that he did not use Tiresias, but Sophocles’ later plays referring to the Oedipus story (Oedipus at Colonnus and Antigone) confirm tat Creon is a man of extreme ambition for power.

Truth emerges and is accepted by Oedipus when it comes from the common people, a  slave and a shepherd who unknowingly reveal the story of Oedipus in childhood when interrogated by Oedipus.  Their own relationship is characterised by friendship, implicitly linking it with antique republican thought in which friendship is tied up with citizenship, with common membership of  a city.  It could also  be taken back to the friendship in Homer’s Iliad between Achilles and Patroclus, a friendship between nobles-heroes.  We can see that as absorbed by the aspect of Athenian citizenship which comes from shared military service of the common people, and definitions of citizens as friends.  Slaves are excluded from this though, so Sophocles’ suggestion that truth can come from a slave is particularly intriguing.

The play is concerned with different things which represent various aspects of truth inits appearances and concealment.  The play as a whole brings together the parts of truth in Foucault’s analysis.  In that case the play both shows democracy as the place where judicial truth can be fully at work, and suggests that we need to look at all forms of truth not just the democratic one, setting up a possible tension.



Foucault’s Lectures on the Government of the Living: 1

I said I was going to post on he interviews appended to the lectures Foucault gave at the Catholic University of Louvain which have been recently published as Mal faire, dire vrai (English edition out in DEcember of next year). In the end ı don’t think the interviews are suitable for summary and discussion, as they move towards to many points discussed very briefly. So onto the second volume of Foucault lectures which have been published in the last few weeks.  This is Du governement des vivants [The government of the living], the date of the English edition has yet to be announced.  This s part of the series published by Editions de Seuil of the open lecture series Foucault gave a the Collège de France from 1970 to 1984.  Du gouvernment des vivants is based on the lecture course of the 1979 to 1980 academic session, but the earliest lecture is from January 1980.

The lecture of 9th January 1980 starts with a presentation of the scene in the palace of the Roman Emperor Septimus Severus.  The ceiling of the room in which he is speaking has stars painted on it, so it is something like the night sky.  Foucault links this with the beliefs of Severus about the basis of his rule.  Stars are used to predict the future, as symbols of necessity, and Severus claims that his rule is written in the sky, it is inevitable and cannot be resisted with any success. Severus’ own position as Emperor rests on luck not his own abilities and efforts.  His reign rests on truth of some kind. There is some resemblance with Oedipus, as represented in Sophocles’ play, Oedipus the King.  Oedipus rule and fall is based on a terrible hidden fate over which he has no control.  Severus’ references to the stars are a way of referring to a hidden fate.  He does not consider the possibility of  a revelation of a terrible fate, just the way that his reign is based in the truth written in the stars.

Foucault refers to a phrase, power-knowleddge, with which he is often associated, in order to explain his difference from it.  He does not favour the idea of a complete knowledge or power on the part of those who do have some power, and resists any idea of a dominant ideology which might be another way of thinking about power-knowledge.  He finds it misleading to think in terms of a complete concealment of reality, and domination of society, by a single way of thinking.

The thoughts of Severus about stars, destiny, truth and power are compared with the art of government as it appears in the early modern period and in the Enlightenment.  The example Foucault looks at form the early modern is that of the French 16th century writer Jean Bodin on politics.  As Foucault points out, Bodin was not only the author of a masterwork of Renaissance political theory (The Republic), but was also the author of Demonology, a guide to demons and witches which can be used as an aid in the arrest, torture and execution of supposed witches.  Foucault suggests this shows the continuing liaison between political power and claims to truth.  The art of government needs the knowledge of demonology just as much as knowledge of state craft in   narrow sense, if it is going to govern with success.  Foucault attacks the Marxist, or maybe just vulgar Marxist,  view that the persecution of supposed witches serves the purpose of creating a docile workforce for 19th century factories.  The text this most obviously refers to is the chapter on primitive accumulation of capital in Marx’s Capital, volume I, where Marx suggests that the increase in capital from the late Middle Ages onward, which results from the increased commercialisation of economic relationships in the countryside, the growth of national debt and financial capital, the enforcement of laws which undermine collective use of rural resources  by strict notions of private property, has the purpose of creating both investment funds for industrialisation and a workforce willing to take on work in new industries. Foucault presumably means to criticise its use by come people rather than to dismiss it completely.  

The relations between claims about truth as the basis of government continue into the work of the Physiocrat (18th century market economists in France) François Quesnay.  Foucault takes this forward not in relation to political economy, or market oriented liberalism, but in relation to Henri de Saint-Simon a master thinker of French rationalist statism. It should also be said that a Saint-Simon Foundation created by the historian François Furet in 1982, and which lasted until 1999, was  liberal leaning, particularly in economic terms.   Furet himself was a major figure in the revival of French liberalism.  We cna understand that relation between liberals and the name of Saint-Simon when look at Foucault’s analysis which looks at Saint-Simonism as a continuation f the Quesnay style of  belief in truth as the basis of policy, which attains utopian dimensions in both Quesnay and Saint-Simon.  For Foucault liberalism is a outcome of the art of politics, or what he refers to more as governmentality from the 18th century onwards.  There is a tension here between a diagnosis of liberalism as an expression of something much more general, and liberalism as the most appropriate outcome of the art of government and governmentality.

Foucault moves onto two 20th century diagnoses of truth and politics, in the contrasting figures of Rosa Luxembourg and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  Luxembourg, early 20th century advocate of revolutionary Marxism who died during a failed revolution in Germany after World War One said that capitalism would not survive a day if everyone knew the truth.  Solzhenitsyn, novelist and dissident under Soviet communism who went into exile in America until the end of communism, a  man of ultra-conservative views, argued that Soviet socialism-communism worked on the basis that everyone knew the truth (with the implication of the truth behind state pro panda).  The truth everyone knew about the communist totalitarian system was that it used force and could not be safely criticised, and this force was the basis of its power, not truth in any other sense.  Of these two radical opposites, Foucault seems closest to the Solzhenitsyn view, particularly we consider the strong line of criticism of the Soviet bloc that he had.  However, we should see him as somewhere between Luxembourg and Solzhenitsyn as both put too much emphasis on some complete sharing of truth behind ideological disguises, a reduction of governmentality to some mixture of crude violence and crude ideological manipulation.