Stylisation and Enlightenment in Foucault’s Ethics I

Serialising a paper I wrote a while back that has ideas on Foucault I am still working on, but which is going to be absorbed into different parts of that work, so I’d like to put it here as a way of setting up some part of  what I think is important in Foucault

Foucault’s approach to antique ethics is often seen as advocating a style of living, in which the individual engages in self-invention unrestrained by inner nature or external reality.  However, Foucault’s references to style of living have an ontology in the sense that individual living, and self creation, is discussed in the context of physical nature and social relations.   Individual pleasure is only well formed where it is also care of the self, a care of the self that refers to the nature of the body, and to relations with others.  Foucault refers to an active liberty, but that liberty is one which depends on social and physical ontology, in a notion of ontology as opposed to the formalism of epistemology.  Ontology is where there is emergence of a knowing self-governing individuality, distinct from notions of a hidden deep self, and the linked notion of a self-inventing individuality.

The idea of a rupture between early and late Foucault between the Foucault of epistemes and the Foucault of subjectivity must be challenged.  Later texts give a way of reading the earlier texts as ethical, and we should not need those later texts to see the ethical and subjectivist dimensions of the earlier texts.  Later texts sometimes correct over rigid statements in the earlier texts as in Foucault’s famous, or infamous, suggestion that man is coming to an end.  There is a move from looking at subjectivity from the point of view of institutions and scientific discourse to  looking at subjectivity from the point of view of care of the self and stylisation.  That shift in emphasis in Foucault is itself referred to Enlightenment in ‘What is Enlightenment?’: sapere audere.

In his work on antique ethics and sexuality, Foucault famously refers to style of living   Some commentators have claimed that Foucault puts style before truth or ethics.  Some of those who defend Foucault do so in terms that largely, or exclusively, emphasise the aesthetic and artistic dimension of Foucault’s ethics.  William E. Connolly makes related claims that Foucault proposes an ontalogy, instead of an ontology, and is devoted to a sensibility of particularism. but this is putting the wrong emphasis on Foucault’s thought, as some commentators have recognised.  Foucault’s ideas about style of life, and aesthetics of existence, are embedded in ethics, an ethics itself understood through ontology and truth.  That is, his ethics is concerned with ontology in two senses: the general field of ontology; the field of truth which is concerned with ontology as it concerned with the relation between statements, or beliefs, and what has being, and the general nature of that relation.  His understanding of ethics is one which questions universalism in morality, and in a linked way, the structures of epistemology.

Foucault deals with antique sexuality and ethics, and related issues, with regard to the way in which ethics is emergent in relation to the embodied self, connecting and intertwining with knowledge, ontology, politics, medicine, and style.  Foucault does not divide these topics between discrete definitions and explanations, and no attempt is made to do so here.  The aim here is to clarify the intertwined themes, focusing on ethics, style and ontology, and with some reference to political relations.   The focus is also on Foucault’s version of antiquity, rather than the accuracy of his account of antiquity.  No doubt he is rather schematic and selective in his approach, but in the best traditions of creative engaged interpretation, in an approach which deserve to be studied in its own right.

There is no abandonment of ethics in Foucault’s account, or retreat into an absolutist relativism; it is the advocacy of truth as it seems to the speaker, which extends into the role of truth, as a moral and civic value.  That conception of truth is understood through an ontology, which is not the universal ontology of abstract objects, but is rather the ontology which emerges in experience, and then through reflection on experience.

It’s important that the famous passage in The Hermeneutics of the Subject, which seems to many to confirm the claim that Foucault subordinates ethics to style, when read carefully, and when read in the context of the flow of Foucault’ argument, does not argue for ethics over style.  Foucault suggests that ‘a whole section of nineteenth-century thought can be reread as a difficult attempt, a series of difficult attempts, to reconstitute and ethics and an aesthetics and an ethics of the self.  If you take, for example, Stirner, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, dandyism, Baudelaire, anarchy, anarchist thought’.  It is the references to dandyism and Baudelaire, in particular, that are used to make Foucault appear to be the justifier of aesthetic egotistical irresponsibility.  The aestheticism of the the other examples is not so clear in the cases of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Stirner; and it is not how anarchy, or anarchism, are normally understood.  Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Stirner all put the self at the centre of their thought, but not in such a way as to promote a contentless and totally internally directed self.  Anarchism is a political theory of a society of laws and institutions, which are completely voluntary in nature, and not brought about state force, or any kind of force.  This does not in itself demand aesthetic egotism, which might be quite destructive from the anarchist point of view.

All these things listed by Foucault should certainly be seen in the context of nineteenth century individualism, and as major instances of it, but we should not make them more extreme instances of individualism than they are, and certainly not as forms of individualism which undermine ethics.  If Foucault brings them into a discussion of antique ‘individualism’, then the force of that contextualisation is just as much to moderate our understanding of nineteenth century individualism, as it is too radicalise our sense of the self in antiquity.

2 thoughts on “Stylisation and Enlightenment in Foucault’s Ethics I

  1. Pingback: Around the Web: Notewriters Edition | Notes On Liberty

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