Stylisation and Enlightenment in Foucault’s Ethics III

The constitution of the moral self refers to modes of ‘subjectivation’, along with the practices of the self, including asceticism.  The full emergence of the moral self is the emergence of a subject in ‘subjectivation’, in which Foucault refers both to the emergence of a subject of actions, and the status of subjection to some external code.  The phenomenology of emergence is fundamental to Foucault’s position, and arises in the way that the subject is defined by its acts.  The ontology of the subject cannot precede its acts, acts which bring into social relations, including that of  ‘subjectivation’.  ‘Subjectivation’ takes a quasi-juridical form, in which the moral subject refers to a law, or set of laws.  Foucault emphasises that subjectivity is a status of personhood in law, which makes us free individuals, and subjected individuals at the same time.   As Foucault acknowledges, this raises the question of the place of universal law in the care of the self.  His answer is that law, itself, is one possible expression of tekhnē, and that we should not be mislead by juridical forms that originate in the Middle Ages.  Juridical forms, as we have known them since the Middle Ages, are far beyond the forms of law that emergence in subjectivation and care of the self.  In general, the existence of rules should not be taken as the existence of juridical laws.  The tekhnē  of care of the self precedes laws, and implicitly precedes notions of moral obligation.  The care of the self is an emergent phenomenon, which comes from the ontological condition of life, not from external laws or moral principles.   This is one way in which Foucault engages with the ambiguity of power and freedom: they go together.  Only the individual who acts can experience the restraints of power, and restraints on individual power, as expressed in law, or any other form.

Where there are moral subjects, there are ‘laws’ in the broadest sense, conveyed in the Ancient Greek nomoi,  that is all customs, conventions and laws.  The necessity to respect nomoi, laws and customs, is less in the content of law and the conditions of application, than in the attitude of respect for  them.  There is a rapport with the self in which it is not carried away by pleasures and appetites, and in which it aims for mastery, and superiority, in relation to them.  This maintains a state of freedom from slavery, with regard to the passions; and the attainment of a mode of being, which can be defined by complete enjoyment of the self, or perfect self-sovereignty.  The respect for law is tied up with the existence of the self, which has a relation with itself.  The respect for the self is a precondition, and a part of, respect for nomoi.   The version of Socrates that appears in Plato’s dialogues is the culmination of that respect, which receives a more generalised formulation in Stoicism.  This develops into Epictetus’ position that care of the self is a privilege and necessity, a gift and an obligation, which assures our liberty and takes ourselves as the object of our obligation.

For Foucault, power is not just negative restraining phenomenon, as he makes clear in, for example, ‘The Body of the Condemned’, Chapter One of Discipline and Punish.  We can only understand the individual’s willingness to be under the power of sovereignty, through the emergence of a moral self which has self-sovereignty, that is has power over itself.  Both external power, and the power of the self over itself, contain dangers, but those dangers are necessary outcomes of our self-relationships, including care for the self.  The political world in the most positive sense of appropriately limited sovereignty, and the participation of sovereign individuals, must itself include a despotic possibility as well as the kind of positive possibilities Foucault identifies in a polity, or republic, based on equality.

Power is about difference and conflict, differences of power and conflict between centres of power.  The conflicts of power are conflicts within society, and between individuals, that are about mastery; the conflicts of power are also conflicts within the individual, that is concerning self-mastery.  The theme of self-mastery is a theme of inner conflict.  Out of these considerations, Foucault’s ethics can be defined as agonistic in two senses, with reference to both: inner struggle and external struggle, ‘[w]hat one must aim for in the agonistic contest with oneself and in the struggle to control the desires was the point where the relationship with oneself would become isomorphic with the relationship of domination, hierarchy, and authority’.  Foucault articulates a liaison between: agonism, self-relation, hierarchy, authority, ethical virility, social virility, sexual virility.  Foucault does not endorse the masculine centred nature of such antique views; he does find value in the ideas of struggle with oneself and with others.  Hierarchies are inevitable for Foucault, where there is struggle within the hierarchy there is freedom.  A hierarchy, or relations of power, that can be transformed or inverted is in accordance with freedom, as he suggests in ‘The Ethics of the Concern of the Self as a Practice of Freedom’.

(To be continued)

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