Stylisation and Enlightenment in Foucault’s Ethics VII

There are four principle types of the stylisation of sexual conduct identified by Foucault: dietary in the subject of the body, economic in the subject of marriage, erotic in the subject of boys, philosophy with regard to truth.  He returns to the definition of ‘stylisation’ later in The Use of Pleasure,  suggesting that stylisation includes: the dietary, the art of a daily rapport of an individual with the body; the economy, that is the art of human conduct of a man as family head; the erotic, as reciprocal art of conduct of man and boy in the relation of love. Similar lists appear in The Hermeneutics of the Subject, with regard to care of the self in Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Plato.  Again evidence that we should not take the categories of ‘self stylisation’ and ‘aesthetics of existence, as narcissistic egotism, since what is associated with them is associated with the care of the self which is necessary for family life, and politics.  Foucault alludes to an identification, or a strong tendency towards identification, between style of life and care of the self, at another point, in which he refers to Plato: ‘The practice of the self is identified and united with the art of living itself (the tekhnē tou bio).  The art of living and the art of oneself are identical; at least they become, or tend to become, identical’.

These definitions take Foucault well beyond arbitrariness, and unconstrained subjectivity.  As noted above, some of Foucault’s defenders are a bit too much inclined to think of what Foucault means as aesthetic invention, and to play down the relational and embedded aspects of what Foucault argues, though others like Nehemas,, Wisnewski, Vintges and Thompson have a more balanced judgement.  Stylisation is not a purely aesthetic activity, or certainly not in the sense that ‘aesthetic’ gained in the eighteenth-century.  Foucault is referring to a time when the ideas of pure art, or aesthetic purity, were quite unknown; and he is also referring to a time, when very inner directed asocial understandings of life, and individuality, were equally unfamiliar.  What is also pertinent here is that the existing forms of inner directedness followed generalising philosophical, or religious schemas.  Self-invention, and the art of living, are understood through the body, the home, the erotic and a philosophy of pleasure .  All are ways of existing which can be stylised, but in relation to the given physical and social existence of the individual, which is an ontological issue, in the non-fomalised non-universalistic sense assumed by Foucault.

The context of stylisation is the four notions Foucault refers to, as often found in reflection on sexual morality, and that structure the moral experience of sexual pleasure: ontology, (aphrodisia) the ethical substance in sexual comportment; deontology (chrēsis), the type of ‘subjectivation’  which leads to moral valorisation; asceticism (enkrateia), mastery of self to constitute a moral subject; teleology (sōphrosynē), the moral subject in its accomplishment.  Ontology features here, as it does in the discussion of stylisation. There are actions in which the world reveals itself, and the natural being of the self.  In this case, the social world is part of the ontology of the natural world, and that is expressed through the social nature of sexuality, which is defined as ethical.  It is on that basis that there can be moral valorisation, the moral subject, and the accomplishment of the moral subject.  Again, we should see the elements that Foucault discusses as intertwined, rather than as distinct stages.  Ontology is present in all four, that is all four are ways in which the world reveals itself.

The ontology over epistemology point establishes a positive approach to sexuality, since the implied problem with epistemology is the turning of something into an object of some knowledge possessed by a singular subject.  This forms Foucault’s understanding of the emergence of care for the self from the use of pleasure in Golden Age Athens, but also his view of sexuality in later antiquity.   For example, the suggestion of how love for boys can be understood in an ethical way.  That is in reciprocity of pleasure in contrast with the more powerful man gaining pleasure from the boy.  His account is intertwined with an account of virginity and conjugal fidelity.  Conjugal fidelity is an idea of reciprocal obligations.  The presumably plural love of men for boys is given a moral dimension in erotic reciprocity.  There are two paths towards reciprocity and equality: monogamous and promiscuous; and underlying all of this is tension, mastery and agonism.  This is the alternative to the kind of moralising prohibitionist intense cultivation of the self, that Foucault describes critically.  The sexual can have a strongly ethical aspect through ideas of reciprocity, rather than through prohibition.  That prohibition is what is more strongly emphasised in later antiquity, according to Foucault.   The prohibitionist path does include reciprocity in that it demands monogamy from husbands as well as wives, but is too much driven by restrictions that undermine the ethical possibilities of the sovereign self.  The hermeneutics of the self itself leaves behind the kind of care of the self that Foucault values in earlier antiquity, but it is a product of that care of the self, and demonstrates other possibilities of the self.

(to be continued)

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