The other New Volume of Foucault’s Lectures has Arrived

I found Du gouvernement des vivants (On the government of the living) in my department pigeon hole yesterday, despatched from France immediately on publication.  This is the latest publication of Foucault’s lecture courses at the Collège de France, covering the academic year of 1979-1980.  The publishing credit is rather complicated, Gallimard, Seuil and the L’École des Hautes études en sciences sociales. EHESS is a postgraduate university in Paris specialising in the humanities and social sciences.  Like the Collège de France, it’s a very French institution which does not have any direct equivalent in other countries, to the best of my knowledge.  The best place for information about the published volumes of Foucault’s lecture series is Seuil though it comes last in the listing of publishers.  I can’t find any information about English publication, but judging by past precedent it will appear about a year from now, and definitely in the series edited by  Arnold Davidson, with different publishers in different countries.

I’ll be posting on it lecture by lecture, as I have started doing with Mal faire, dire vrai (Louvain lectures on confession in justice).  For this post, comment based on a the contents pages and a quick glance through the volume.  Then I’ll return to the Louvain volume, proceeding to post lecture by lecture on the recent Paris volume after I’ve finished with my initial series of posts.

There is considerable over lap between both recent volumes, which is not surprising as the lectures concerned were delivered about a year apart, so it is certainly a good idea to take the books together.  They are certainly not identical in shape or in themes.  One notable overlap is in discussion of Oedipus the King.  Again Foucault takes the Sophocles play as a starting point for the history of discussions of truth and subjectivity.  The point of the slightly peculiar title of the lecture series is to refer to the way that living humans, human life, individual existence, and so on, come under both power and truth, with the idea of power-knowledge appearing.  This discussion extends from the relation between the political power of Oedipus and his search for truth, on to the role of the Confession and penance in early and Medieval Christianity, attempts at a science of the state and politics since Jean Bodin (as in the 16th century French writer on the state, as well as on demonology), the origins of Descartes’ philosophy and so on.

The discussion of Greek Pagan antiquity  looks at questions of truth as both part of the universalist claims of political power, and as very variable.  Sophocles’ version of the Oedipus legend is concerned with the different possibilities of truth, of what it is, and how it emerges, varying between individuals, but which state power needs to grasp and unify in order to justify itself.  Oedipus falls from political power because of his failures of knowledge with regard to the sins he has committed, of murdering his father and marrying his mother.  The other side of that is that Oedipus came to power through his defeat the Sphinx, which relies on his intelligence in answering the monster’s riddle.

The Ancient Greek concern with truth as the basis of government is carried through with reference to: Quesnay (Physiocrat, i.e. 18th century free trade economist), Saint-Simon (19th century believer in a rational state based on science), Rosa Luxembourg (the Polish revolutionary who died in Germany in 1920), and Solzhenitsyn (the Russian novelist who was a famous dissident and then exile during the time of Soviet socialism).  A good indication of ways in which Foucault always wants o explore all the possible manifestations of a perspective.

The role of truth in Christian confession is the major bridge between antique and modern perspectives in Foucault’s account.  He looks at how that emerges from antique Pagan perspectives on subjectivity, self-government and truth, with Stoicism as an important stage on the way to Christianity.   Augustine, the great influence on Christian theology, himself greatly concerned with Stoicism and ‘heretical’ movements lie Gnosticism, is discussed partly in relation to his understanding of  free will and original sin.  The growth of confession and penitence as part of Christian life, and as central to life in religious institutions is part of what makes Descartes’ philosophy possible in the 17th century.  The earlier Christian practices emphasise self-examination and an inner struggle with the devil.  This corresponds with Descartes introspective  basis, and his concern with the possibility that the world is the creation of a deceiving demon.

The major part of the book is concerned with the Antique and Medieval ways of establishing truth through self-invetigation and the importance of speaking truth in the political and religious domains. In this the idea of an archaeology of knowledge is used, so connecting with Foucault’s work of the later 196os.  Foucault himself as inclined to see his earlier and later work as continuous, rather than as divided into strictly delimited phases.  The discussion of Christian ritual does not just refer to the confession but to the Baptism as a way of cultivating the Christian self.

If there is one issue that Foucault raises which is definitive for his work as a whole, it is the of knowledge of the self through loss of the self.  The self keeps retreating in all the ways that we try to grasp it, so a giving up of the self is the only we can grasp it.  Christian attitudes in which both self-examination and loss of the self in our unity with God, are the expression of that duality.


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