Foucault on the Self and Individualism

A few thoughts inspired by my current reading of The Use of Pleasure and The Care of the Self, volumes II and III of Michel Foucault’s History of SexualityHistory of Sexuality is concerned with movements in the knowledge and ethics of the self, with a focus on the erotic.

 

Foucault defines three aspects of individualism: the value of individuality, private life, the relation of the self with itself.  The movement of the argument is to suggest that privacy has been given too much emphasis, and the other two aspects not enough.  This overemphasis on privacy is linked with the 19th Century bourgeoisie and with the Rome of Augustus.  That is Ancient Rome under its first Emperor Augustus.  Foucault puts the well known edicts of Augustus to control sexuality as being about pushing ‘deviant’ sexuality into the private sphere, and links this with the movement in Antique ethics towards the rationalism and asceticism of Stoicism.

 

What Foucault sees in pre-Augustus antiquity, and even in the careful reading of the Roman and Hellenstic Neo-Stoics (Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius), is a richness of understanding of the self and care for the self.  It is care for the self, which establishes someone as a citizen with political rights,  That provides a breach of private/public barrier in a link between self-government and the right to political self-government and the government of others.  Evidently Foucault finds the self-government the most interesting aspect.

 

Within that affirmation of the self as political self, Foucault introduces an important distinction.  That is the distinction between following external laws and style of activity.  ‘Style of activity’ arises where the individual goes beyond natural order and positive law.  It arises in the interpretation of dreams, where the actor in the dream goes beyond the ‘natural’ in sexual activity.

 

Style of activity is one way in which individuality and the relation of self with itself can be enhanced.  The activity of self-creation and presentation is the most liberatory experience.  The Antique culture struggles with this, even it most open moments.  Ancient Athens tolerated open homosexuality, but gives it a low value because it is seen as an older man as penetrating a younger man of lower status.  Homosexuality is low because it means connections with lowness, and the same is true for relations with woman.  Virility, sexual capacity, is given value in Ancient culture where it is linked with citizenship.  The citizen should govern, and impregnate, a woman who gives him a child.  Since the woman has low status with no political rights, sexual relations with her must be disgraceful, undermining the social-moral status given to a man with a woman he governs.

 

Style of activity seems to be Foucault’s alternative to a degradation of the self in asceticism.  The invention of the self as outside the ‘truth’ of nature or the prescription of laws, proves a way of valuing individuality and the relation of the self with itself.  This in itself contains further distinctions.  Truth is valued where it comes from the self and is not an external imposition.  There is a truth of being someone different, of new inventions of selfhood, which expresses some resistance to metaphysical and legal ‘truths’.  In this way, Foucault suggest forms of individualism, beyond mere privacy, for the contemporary world.

John Stuart Mill and Nietzsche on Individualism

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with picture of Mill, not just the link.

John Stuart Mill picture in the image above.

I always find it creates a bit of a shock if I suggest that John Stuart Mill and Nietzsche had much in common about anything. It’s true that Nietzsche was rather rude about Mill and that they expressed contradictory views about parliamentary democracy and the women’s movement. However, it is also true that it would be absurd to interpret Nietzsche according to the first impression his provocative rhetoric gives; and it would be absurd to say that two philosophers who disagree could not have underlying agreement in the area where they have some disagreement.

Nietzsche’s criticisms of 19th Century liberalism need two major qualifiers:

He expressed admiration for liberal figures like Voltaire, Mirabeau (a leading moderate in the early stages of the French Revolution) and Kaiser Friedrich (very briefly German Emperor between William I and II, and unlike them a supporter of liberals in German politics).

His criticisms of parliamentary democracy, and democratic culture, are expressions of the same criticisms that 19th Century liberals had of the culture and politics of the time.

The general context for this, is that 18th and 19th Century liberalism was very anxious about the consequences of a democracy which incorporated voters with little, or no education and property. As much as anything, liberals of that time were concerned with restricting the possibilities of levelling down egalitarianism and incoherent populist surges in democratic politics threatening individual righys, and in the earlier part of that period tended to prefer limitations on voting rights. I would say that idea broke down with Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835-40), a major influence on Mill, which really established the idea that it was only a matter of time before all developed countries became fully democratic. Mill himself thought political rights should be denied to ‘barbarous’ peoples, like Tocqueville he thought such peoples should be educated for civilisation and democracy through colonialism. Even in the advanced countries, Mill was concerned with uneducated voters participating in the political process and suggested giving more votes to the more educated. Sometimes, Mill comes very close to suggesting a new aristocracy of education, and intellect, should be ruling in ways that insulated them from waves of popular feeling, amongst the uneducated. In some sense, the existence of a constitution and laws, interpreted by judges not popular assemblies, makes that true of all modern democracies; something Tocqueville who was from an old aristocratic family noted with great interest.

That’s the background, let’s list some specific points where Mill and Nietzsche agree

Modern society promotes conformity and uniformity which undermines the existence of strong and diverse individuals.

Traditions and customs, particularly religion, are chains on the mind which should be cast off.

Traditions and customs, including religion, produced the great, strong, and varied individuals of the past.

We need to find ways of producing great, strong, and varied individuals for the future.

A society is at least partly justified by its creation of particularly notable strong and varied individuals.

Higher cultural values should be recognised, and defended against uniformity in culture, which always descends to a low level.

State decisions should never be based on the immediate desires of an uneducated mass.

I believe that clearly establishes some common ground. Further commentary on this would looks further at themes common to Mill, Tocqueville and Nietzsche; and would consider the relation to Mill and Nietzsche to the kind of liberalism established by Wilhelm von Humboldt in The Limits of State Action. Mill refers directly to this text. and while I’m not aware of any direct references in Nietzsche the parallels are most striking. These issues should be coming up in future posts.

Nietzsche and Burckhardt

I’ve finished reading Burckhardt’s The Greeks and Greek Civilization. It’s a great work on politics, culture, religion and many things in Ancient Greece. It really tells a story about the road to Golden Age Athens, and a decline in Athens, followed by the destruction of the Ancient Greek world as it was taken over by the Macedonian monarchy and absorbed into the Hellenistic world resulting from Alexander’s conquests. Today I’ll highlight a few things which seem particularly relevant to reading Nietzsche, who was Burkhardt’s friend and colleague at the University of Basle.

Burckhardt strong emphasises the role of competition in the Ancient Greek world. The Greek states were united in the Olympic games, and there were many other forms of competition. The great Athenian tragedies were written for competitions. There were all kinds of contests in gymnastics, poetry, and music throughout the Greek world. Communities took enormous pride in the achievements of locals in the Olympic games and other contests. The pride in winning and the efforts made to win were extreme. This can be seen in the wounds suffered by wrestling and the great interest of tyrants in backing winning teams. This should remind us of two early essays by Nietzsche on ‘The Greek State’ and ‘Homer on Competition’. It also provides a perspective for understanding ‘master morality’ in Nietzsche.

Burckhardt regards the interest in competition as part of the Aristocratic culture. It also existed in democratic Athens, and was the source of its great achievements. The attitude of the great democratic leader Pericles to Athens power in Greece itself shows this. However, the democratic world undermined competition. Excellence and the competition for excellence became the kind of jealousy and urge to denunciation, which led to the trial and death of Socrates. Athens after the Peloponnesian War weakened under the influence of this kind of spirit in which demogogary, perjury, and parasitic law cases became dominant. Here we see why Plato preferred Crete and Sparta. However, Sparata itself lost its old civic virtues at this, according to Burckhardt, becasue its very somination of Greece made it weaken under the influence of the other parts of Greece.

For Burckhardt, democracy means an individualism based on the cult of excellence and the growth of resentment. The decline of the aristocracy which vreated the values used by democracy allows great culture to flourish, but only for a limited period. These aspects of Burckhardt are close to Nietzzsche’s thoughts on politics and culture throughout his life, and should be taken into account.

Why Buffy and Joss Whedon’s other work matter

Joss Whedon created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, after three series this lead to the spin off Angel. Buffy ran for 7 seasons, Angel ran for 5 seasons. Towards the end of that period Whedon made 14 episodes of Firefly before it was cancelled by the network. The sequel to Firefly was the film Serenity. All these things have sold in massive amounts on DVD, unfortunately TV and cinema have been more mixed in their returns.

I’ll be returing to the Whedonverse. First of all, why does it matter? Today we’ll concentrate on Buffy. A series with a silly sounding name. The full name of the series, as Whedon points out, combines comedy, horror and drama. The silliness already indicates an interest in combining genres and crossing boundaries. What are the themes that appear and make Buffy important 8and which appear in the rest of the Whedonverse).

Buffy is an icon of female power, often defeating patronising enemies.
Buffy is also an ambiguous character: the hero and the disturbed individualist
The apparently simple conflict between good and evil moves switches back and forth between moral ambiguity and moral absolutes.
Buffy is drawn in different ways to 2 vampire characters (Angel and Spike) who make journeys from good to evil.
Buffy, Angel and Spike finds that despite the elemental conflicts she participates in, that the world has no meaning. The only morsl perspective is what the individual brings.
These characters refer to alientated states of mind and the struggle to overcome subjective alienation.
Characters find that passion drives them and is the basis rather than moral judgement.
Spike shows a moral evolution driven first by the restraint of a violence inhibiting implant, then by love for Buffy and then by regaining his ‘soul’ (soul=conscience in the Whedonverse). Many questions arise here about what morality is and what moral motivation is.
Individual difference and liberty are promoted along with an awareness that they can become alienating and disturbing.
Buffy is drawn towards ‘the dark’, towards violence, aggression and chaos in her own struggle against them.
The struggle against demonic chaos is a struggle to impose the order that Buffy resists.
Characters go through remarkable changes from apparent good to evil, and from evil to good. This is made very material in the vampirasation of Spike and Angel, both events are shown in flashback, and in the ways in which Angel and Spike get their souls back. For Angel, a soul is a punishment, for Spike it is a reward he seeks to make him worthy of Buffy. These tranformations and many others, raise questions about the limits of personal identity and the posisbility of change within continuous identity.
It deals with different possible worlds, as do many philosophers.
It’s very funny, all serious themes are ironised and everything is ironised. This is an important message in itself. Comedy and tragedy are always close together.