Stylisation and Enlightenment in Foucault’s Ethics IV

There is a negative idea of hierarchy, in a context where that could refer to: the authority of master over slave, and an affirmative idea of combat with adversaries; an agonistic relation with the self, and with others.  The best way of understanding Foucault, then, is that differences of authority, differences in the hierarchy, are necessary to the ethics of self-relationships.  The reciprocal relation has an ideal place in Foucault, but that relation itself is partly formed by the moralisation of sex, within a hierarchy of better and worse sexual practices, ‘[t]he effort that the individual was urged to bear to bring on himself, the necessary ascesis, had the form of a battle to be fought, a victory to be won in establishing a domain of self over self’.  The self-relation, which enables an individual to be sovereign and moral, is part of a struggle.  The tendency Foucault notes, in the antique world, for care of the self to become more and more about a  denial of the self is something he regards critically, as well, though he does not simply reject it; and it is a process which he finds to be tied up with the elevation of  heterosexuality.  The moral reflection in classical Greece on pleasure is distinguished, from the codification of acts, or the ‘hermeneutics of the subject’, which Foucault associates with the Christianity that becomes dominant in later stages of antiquity. The interest in formulating ethics of desire became a morality of renunciation, and is part of the constitution of a hermeneutics of desire.

Foucault’s claims about the antique understanding of pleasure, are embedded in an ethics of desire, and are oriented towards a stylisation of attitude, and an aesthetics of existence.  It is stylisation because of the open nature of sexuality.  Stylisation refers to rules and nature, so it is not an indeterminate kind of openness.  Since nature and rules are not always in unity, stylisation is the way in which a unity is produced, a unity which is also the tension within a hierarchy.   A unity which is both particularistic and ethical. Reason and deliberation reveal themselves in the action, but the action is not a gratuitous isolated moment, it belongs to a process of emergence in which it cannot be separated from the rational deliberative process.  The rational deliberative process cannot be understood separately from its inherent quality, of revealing itself through an action.

There is some development from nature to style in Foucault’s account of antique sexuality, but the development goes through the rational deliberative act as part of life, to style as a part of life in its connections with the rest of society.  Style is definitely not identified with indeterminate and changing self-invention, but with the family, social and economic aspects of the life of the subject.  It is The Care of the Self where this is investigated, with regard to the second century dream book of Artemidorus.  Foucault’s reliance on the dream book is an example of this thought at its most schematic, in its tendency to put great weight on one example.  However, there is compensation in the integrity of the resulting argument, as a way of illuminating the development of ethics in the antique world.  Oversimplification is a well established part of philosophical and scientific method.  What the method gives us here is a way of thinking about the relation between care of the self and sociality in the antique world, as both in tension and as mutually reinforcing.  In The Care of the Self, ‘The Cultivation of the Self’, Foucault goes on to argue that the nature of care of the self in the early Roman Empire, by contrast with earlier antiquity, is such that style of life expressed itself in the choice of nature and universality, as the appropriate style.  There is a flight of the self from its weakness through askēsis in which there is both universalisation and stylisation.  This stage of antique ethics and sexuality is studied in detail in parts Four to Six of The Care of the Self, after the general terms are set out in the earlier parts of the book.

Artemidorus’ dream book itself shows the way in which care of the self, that emerges from pleasure, itself becomes the starting point for the emergence of prohibitionism.  The book’s origin is over a century after the emergence of the early Roman Empire, and from Foucault’s point of view, confirms his suggestion about the general transformation that accompanied the transformation in political forms.  The change of political forms feeds into a loss of the idea of self-government, that is of an aspect of care of the self, because of the loss of republican involvement of citizens, particularly the aristocracy, in political government.  There is a loss of certainty about what the self is, but that is the road to asceticism and prohibitionism, not to an aestheticised contentless self-stylisation.

(To be continued)

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