Michel Foucault: Practices of Self, Ethics, and Freedom

Michel Foucault: Practices of Self, Ethics, and Freedom

During this interview, Michel Foucault presents his reading of the Greek and Roman tradition of concern of self and how this concern or practice of self relates to freedom, ethics, liberation, and truth.  To begin with, Foucault is not addressing what constitutes the subject, but how the subject commingles in games of truth with other subjects.  Furthermore, it is the subject’s self-formation during the concern of self that mediates the subject’s actions with the world of subjects, institutions, and organizations.  Allow me to schematize Foucault’s presentation.

A person works on his self in order to define his relationship to himself and with others.  As a practice, it is not one of moral renunciation in the Christian sense according to Foucault, but a practice dedicated to refining the self to coincide with a particular “mode of being” as the desideratum (282).  There is no “human nature” to suppress or overcome, concern for the self is a practice of freedom, not of liberation.  Liberation is not enough for Foucault’s subject to determine what comprises a practice of freedom, for at the point of liberation the new form of existence must be contemplated and organized (in the sense of establishing coherence) in order for the practice of self to operate freely.  This does not mean that Foucault excludes liberation as a political precondition to practices of freedom; it is just not the focus of his analysis.  For example, if the subject is being dominated, where the sphere of Foucaultian “power relations” is minuscule, then a liberation (i.e., eliminating or resisting the conditions of domination) results in a situation where concern of the self and freedom can be practiced: “liberation paves the way for new power relationships, which must be controlled by practices of freedom” (284).

This also provides a segue into the ethical component of practices of freedom where “freedom is the ontological condition of ethics.  But ethics is the considered form that freedom takes when it is informed by reflection” (284).  By reflecting, the subject develops knowledge of self, which determines the subject’s practice of freedom vis-à-vis the community and family.  For example, the Greeks and Romans equated self-awareness with “moral reflection” where “care [and] concerns of the self were required for right conduct” (285).  This conduct, as a form and not a substance, is characterized by the existing society.  The social ‘truths’ of proper etiquette, what represents harmony and discord are part of knowledge and as such are precepts regarding the ethical practice of freedom or defining the social ethos.  It is ethos, according to Foucault, that clarifies the relations between concern for self and others, because the activity of caring for yourself involves caring for others.  For example, the good mother cares for her self, how she is perceived by others, and provides her children with proper clothing, sustenance, and love (if prescribed by ethos)- “the care of the self is ethically prior [to care for others] in that the relationship with oneself is ontologically prior” (287).

Now, what is to prevent a subject from seizing power and controlling others?  There is nothing to ‘prevent’ this per se, but a subject’s care of self precludes the usurpation of power for the reasons outlined above.  It is the subject not practicing care of self who potentially becomes the instigator in reducing the sphere of freedom by utilizing coercive or repressive techniques.  Thus, the care of self is a path toward ‘regulating power over oneself and consequently regulating one’s power over others’ (288).  The ethical person exercises control over himself; that is, masters his desires, should any be antithetical to ethos, which otherwise safeguards other subjects from the fulfillment of such desires.

The subject, therefore, is not a substance, but a form.  In a complex society composed of numerous others, the subject constitutes itself according to its multiple roles.  Hence, the relationship between subjects varies according to the regulating ethos.  Foucault avers that each different relation precipitates a distinct subject in oneself; that is to say, my care of self as a student has different requirements or guidelines than my care of self as a teacher.  In both instances, my relationship to myself is different.  This multiplicity of selves in the subject (no wonder I am always so confused) is not only found in the framework of ethos, but also in “relations of power” between subjects that are engaged in various activities- be they familial, economic, amorous, or athletic.  These power relations are considered by Foucault to be dynamic, lacking rigidity.  This idea of power explains why a subordinate in a hierarchy may exercise power over a superior in spite of the legitimacy of the power hierarchy, or how a subject practicing concern of self can administrate in a benevolent manner as opposed to the tyrannical administrator.  Let us recall that the aforementioned activities take place in a realm of freedom, where the concern of self mediates power relations.  Who or what determines which administrator is preferable?  As each subject progresses in self reflection, power relationships may change, perhaps effacing power (in the standard sense) altogether.

How is this significant?  Forgive the cliché questions, but does this analysis justify the patriotism of Eichmann?  I am referring to his statement in court that his deadly activities were his patriotic duty to the National Socialist state?  If the state’s ethos of genocide was part of his conscious reflection and concern for self, was he an ethical subject?  Or, is this unfair because of a notion of humanity that may be a notion of substance rather than form?  Is this analysis potentially dangerous (in terms of Macintyre’s emotivism discussed in After Virtue)?  And what of the extermination camp (Vernichtungslager) officer who ensures the annihilation of beings during his workday and returns home to make love to his wife and play with his giggling children?  Is this officer also practicing concern of the self?  Foucault states “practices [of self] are nevertheless not something invented by the individual himself.  They are models that he finds in his culture and are proposed, suggested, imposed upon him by his culture, his society, and his social group” (291).  Is this officer the “mad subject” or a patriot?

In accordance with the subject heading for today, beyond victimhood, let us briefly consider the victim.  Was there such a level of domination in the camp so that no freedom existed, where no possible resistance to power could occur?  Foucault tells us “a power can be exercised over the other [with total power] only insofar as the other still has the option of killing himself…or of killing the other person” (292).  Since it is widely considered impossible for the walking dead to have been capable of resistance or insurrection for instrumental, psychological, and physiological reasons, then suicide (abstracting from the preceding triad) was the only degree of freedom.  Does this mean that there was no victim?  Can victimhood cease to be a phenomenon through practice of self?  As a form, victimhood could be redefined.

Foucault’s problematic centers around relations of power and how they are connected to games of truth (296).  The questions above fall also into this category of truth games.  The game of truth, according to Foucault, is “as set of procedures that lead to a certain result, which on the basis of its principles and rules of procedure, may be considered valid or invalid, winning or losing” (297).  Just as there are multiple selves in a subject, there are multiple games of truth that exist between individuals, groups, and institutions.  A subject may find himself engaged in several games of truth on any given day.  Foucault indicates that a positive aspect of this case- where no single game of truth dominates and excludes all others- can be found in the progressive development of the West (297).  Since a game of truth forum exists, the possibility to modify the principles or the entire game permits development, whereas the domination of one game of truth stunts such development.  Again, truth represents a form, but can also represent a substance in relation to some particular context.

Games of truth, Foucault agrees, are increasingly independent of structures of power given contemporary communication technologies (298).  This predicament (so it seems to be by Foucault) can be tempered by ethos.  Why and for whom is this situation a problem?  Would it not benefit a state when the populace is engaged in playing many games of truth, distracted from scrutinizing state activities?  The domestic sphere of exchange is where such games can be played without being “utopian” in that they are not coercive.  Is that sphere merely “pop discourse” and the threat of a coercive game of truth resides in the state?  If the subject maintains his concern for self, would the pop games of truth vanish or recede so that the ethical could be resuscitated and the practice of freedom elevated to the political sphere so that the state no longer imposes its game of truth on a non-attentive polity?  Since power is a game of strategy for Foucault, does not the information age serve as the ultimate state strategy to disentangle itself from citizen control?  (I am thinking of Schmitt here)

The concern of self answers these questions, I believe, revealing Foucault’s “new ethics” (299).  He states that the concern for self, which eliminates the temptation to dominate, is “the hinge point of ethical concerns and the political struggle for respect of rights, of critical thought against abusive techniques of government and research in ethics that seeks to ground individual freedom” (299).  It is not exclusively the practice of self as guarantor of freedom, but its role in “governmentality” (300).  Governmentality- defined as a matrix of relations between multiple selves, games of truth, and strategies of power- represents freedom and the practice of freedom that is ethical.  Conversely, the subject can only be a juridical subject when connected to a political institution as a source of analysis.  Thus, Foucault frees the subject from his legal restraints.


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