Foucault’s Lectures on Subjectivity and Truth, IX

Lecture of 11th March, 1981

Marriage was institutionalised as a public union by Greeks in pre-Roman Egypt (where there was a considerable Greek influence from Alexander the Great’s conquest and from the Macedonian-Greek dynasty of one of Alexander’s generals that ruled Egypt after the death of Alexander. The Augustan laws against adultery followed on from this practice, reinforcing it (is the implication that it had spread from Egypt to Rome, with Egypt only becoming Roman in Augustus’ time, under the very direct control of the Emperor compared with other provinces, as a result of the defeat of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra, or is the implication that there were parallel developments in Rome to those in Egypt?).

In Egypt, Foucault refers to the original public marriage contracts as concerned with establishing that the wife can only leave the home with the husband’s permission and is absolutely forbidden to have extra-martial liaisons, while the husband is obliged to support the wife economically and not abuse her. In matters of extramarital liaisons, the husband is forbidden to bring a partner into the household, as a concubine, or to have children by another partner, which in practice means no legally recognised children. Foucault suggests these amount to a prohibition on bigamy.

As Egypt became more Roman than Hellenic (by way of a digression, it is interesting to be reminded that though Egypt like more western parts of North Africa was part of Eastern Rome/Byzantium, it was more latinised than Greece and Anatolia), the restraints on the husband having a permanent mistress or boyfriend, or maintaining a parallel household increased, but never to the extent that extramarital liaisons were ever completely forbidden to the husband. So the Stoic preference for mutual fidelity was never recognised in law, what was recognised was a fidelity of existence, in which the husband could not undermine the family life he had with his legally recognised wife.

Marital law recognised an already existing emphasis in practice on the couple and did not create much new. Roman writers (e.g. letters of Pliny – presumably Pliny the Younger – and the poetry of Stace) , increasingly referred to the value of ‘concordia’ in marriage, an idea that was already in Stoic and other philosophical writings. The idea of marital concord included idealisation of alive together without arguments. Tacitus’ Life of Agricola moves towards the idea of ‘caritas’ in marriage, in which each prefers the other’s welfare to their own. Foucault seems to be saying this is new in non-philosophical writing, but was already part of Stoic writing.

Pliny’s (the Younger) letters to his wife deploy a language of desire previously familiar from writing about non-marital love. Idealised love, the pain of absence and the image of the absent object of love. What really strikes Foucault is that for Pliny (the Younger), the desired one is associated with torture. Foucault suggests this sets up a way of writing about love, which goes up to Marcel Proust’s account of Albertine (that is the love of the narrator for Albertine in In Search of Lost Time, which is to be found in The Captive and The Fugitive). This familiar way of thinking about desire arises in western culture within the family, in relation to the wife, which Foucault implies is in contrast with the way it has often been understood since.

Foucault takes his discussion of changes in practice, changes in law, and changes in discourse about love and marriage, but particularly ‘aphrodisia’ (love and sexual activity) as the opportunity for a discussion about truth and reality. Truth is a game, which is never just a statement of what is real. The game, or language, or truth, arises in the relation between the general facts and the singular situation of saying what is true about them. If we say snow is white, that refers to a reality, but that still leaves the question of why we are making the statement.

Statements do not make anything real, but we have the question of the relations between reality and statements. There is never a complete ontological identity between the reality of discourse, the existence of the discourse, its existence as a discourse that claims to be true, and the real of which it speaks. Foucault begins this discussion of reality, discourse and truth with the question of the status of moral discourse. Saying something should be the case is to suggest that it is not the case, though moral discourse is in some way referring to what is the case, which is very clear with regard to the Pliny the Younger era discussion of marriage, since it refers to real practices and a real intensification of the discourse idealising marriage. The issues about the status of prescriptive discourse parallel those concerning epistemological discourse. There is a necessary ambiguity about the relation between the status of what is said and what is referred to, since the relation both suggests an identity and a difference.

Foucault goes back to the concerns of early work on discourse like the Archaeology of Knowledge and alludes to his later concerns with Enlightenment and ethics, with the way that truthful discourse is variable and is associated with our own relation with our self, what we try to make real in ourselves. The way he interlaces these concerns suggests to me a resistance to any idea of a rupture between an earlier and later Foucault, so that instead there is a process of modulation of concerns there from the beginning.

The above refers to Subjectivité et Vérité. Cours au Collège de France, 1980-1981. Eds. François Ewald, Allesandro Fontana and Frédéric Gros. Paris: Seuil/Gallimard, 2014


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