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’.

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