Foucault’s Lectures on Subjectivity and Truth, XI.1

Lecture of 25th March, 1981

Foucault continues  his discussion of the relation between the subjectivity of sexuality, the truth of subjectivity, ad subjectivity in truth. These lectures are concerned with how these themes are illuminated in the shift from pagan Greek thought to Christian thought, which some emphasis on Stoicism and the Christian thought of the third and fourth centuries as the centre of the transition.

In this context, Foucault suggests that while Christianity puts a new emphasis on the value of virginity and chastity, it is less restrictive of aphrodisias in marriage than Stoicism was before it. In the framing of this discussion, Foucault also emphasises that in his view bios has a unity in pre-Christian Greek thought, which is lacking in Christianity, because of the separation Christianity makes between life in this world and life in the next world. There is no such absolute separation in pre-Christian thought. Foucault thinks it is necessary to made this point on the context of discussing tekhne, as it appears in the art of living.

Foucault contrasts the Christian split with Pythagorean remarks that come from the fourth century BCE Black Sea Anatolian philosopher Heraclides Ponticus, and were repeated by later writers, including Diogenes Laertius who seems to be Foucault’s principle source in this matter. What Diogenes Laertius attributed to Heraclides was a three fold division within bios between those born slaves to glory, those who seek wealth, and philosophers who pursue truth. Foucault refers to this as the distinction between a life of politics, a life of wealth, and a life of truth.

We could add to this that the distinction is quite reminiscent of Aristotle’s ethics and politics, where a life of honour in politics is preferable to seeking wealth, but is inferior to a philosophical life. These distinctions are distinctions in self-relation according to Foucault rather than distinctions of status, goal, or activity. They are concerned with the way in which one inserts one’s own liberty, one’s own ends, one’s own project in things themselves, the manner in which one puts them in perspective and uses them. As Heraclides (via Diogenes) suggests all those approaches are part of a panegyric that is a festival where all these approaches can be seen together in relation to the the things that are grasped in common in the world.

There is no Greek equivalent from this time for the modern idea of subjectivity. It is Christianity that provides the framework for what we call subjectivity in three aspects: a relation with the beyond, an operation of conversion, the existence of an authenticity or a deep truth that is the basis of our subjectivity. The idea of bios does not refer to a beyond and does not refer to a conversion, but rather a continuous work on the self by itself. There is no hidden authenticity in bios waiting to be discovered, but rather an unending search.

Bios becomes inserted into the code of Christianity and this cannot be described as rationalisation or ideology, but as the constitution of subjectivity or subjectivation. Foucault seems to suggest that the jurisdictional enters at the same time of Christianity, which is consistent with a general tendency to link Christianity and subjectivation with ‘juridification’, the replacement of the art of life with the enforcement of law, which can be found elsewhere, e.g. the Louvain lectures, Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling. The Function of Avowal in Justice which have just been published in English (University of Chicago Press) and the Collège de France lectures On the Government of the Living (Palgrave 2013).

I previously summarised and commented on the French texts of both in posts of Novembers and December 2012. This a is very large topic, but in brief I find Foucault’s exploration illuminating but with typically schematic elements, and I’m inclined to the think of the tension between statute or state enforced law and relatively less formalised and official forms of living as a constant tensions, something that is constantly repeated in history. Famously we can see a version of it in Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone. I’m not suggesting that Foucault ignores the constant tension, he does perhaps get into some tension of his own between thinking of a series of epistemes and thinking of the repetition of situations.

Foucault shows some awareness of this kind of tension at this point, since he points out the difficulty of saying when their is a break between Christian flesh and pre-Christian aphordisias. The Christian thinking becomes systematised in the third century, but their is a prolongation of some pre-Christian attitudes, such as the relative tolerance of homosexuality (Foucault’s choice of word) until the twelfth century. Foucault’s solution is that the break comes with the change from technologies of the self to technologies of subjectivity in the third and fourth centuries. That break co-exists with prolongation of some older ideas within the matrix of experience, which Foucault suggests is a more apposite term than code.

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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