The Singularity of Self in the Later Foucault: Reconsidering the End(s) of Poststructuralist Thought
Recent years have seen influential â€˜leftâ€™ theorists such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj ï¾Žiï¾žek1 join with earlier â€˜rightâ€™ theorists of normativity to argue that poststructuralismâ€™s particular form of privileging the other and difference leads to the â€œdispersionâ€ of the self as ethical agent,2 as well as to resignation and cynicism concerning politics and the political. Precipitating a growing crisis of poststructuralism, they variously call for a renewed attention to the â€˜singularityâ€™ of the self and of events in a â€˜return of the realâ€™. That is, against what they take to be the ambiguities and deferrals of poststructuralism, they deploy practices of thought, inspired in significant ways by the work of Jacques Lacan (among others), which variously posit a singular Real decisive for the interpretation and negotiation of the infinite differences of the present situation â€“ this the better to recognise and resist the specific unfreedoms that characterise it.
This paper considers the later work of Michel Foucault against this backdrop, proposing that the announcement of the incipient eclipse, or end, of poststructuralism may prove premature, insofar as Foucaultâ€™s work engages with such questions of singularity and the real in ways that challenge the trajectories of Badiou and ï¾Žiï¾žek â€“ even as their critique challenges his poststructuralism to re-examine its ends and to re-position its concerns within an altered situation. In particular, it proposes that Foucault, in his later work concerning practices of the self, situates the drive toward â€˜becoming otherâ€™ in relation to a historically-constituted singularity of the self. In so doing, he implicitly connects the singularity of the self with his earlier analyses of specific prohibitions, exclusions, and disciplinary productions of individuals, in a thought, it is argued, which is not unsympathetic to the call for the â€˜return of the realâ€™. At the same time, it will be proposed, that Foucaultâ€™s attention to the ambiguity involved in what he termed â€œÃ©vÃ©nementialisationâ€, the analysis of discourse and practices as dimensions of events, complicates the relation of the singularity of the event and the self to the specific and material.3 In Peter Hallwardâ€™s terms, the critical question, then, becomes that of how to formulate adequately the singular in its relation (or non-relation) to the specific.4 As such, the paper proposes that the important debate between poststructuralism, at least in its Foucauldian form, and these more recent theorists concerns modes of singularity and their ethical and political implications.
Before turning to Foucault, a brief consideration of the basic coordinates of Badiouâ€™s and ï¾Žiï¾žekâ€™s deployment of the Lacanian Real is in order.
Badiou, ï¾Žiï¾žek and the Return of the Real
Crucial to both Badiou and ï¾Žiï¾žek is Jacques Lacanâ€™s move in the 1960â€™s beyond a psychoanalytic therapeutics focussed upon understanding and negotiating identity and subjectivity as â€˜Imaginaryâ€™ constructs that are constituted within, and in relation to, the â€˜Symbolicâ€™ system of societal signifiers â€“ the unconscious big Other, to which individuals must give themselves over if they are to achieve being. At that point, Lacan began to formulate his conception of the â€˜Realâ€™, as that which is prior to and lies outside of the Symbolic, resists symbolisation, and, hence, is unrepresentable within it. The Real emerges as that which is irreducibly repressed by the Symbolic.
With this development, the focus of Lacanian psychoanalysis shifted to a discernment of those points at which the Real is encountered as the void of gaps in the Symbolic, revealed by symptoms and revealing of the contingency (or â€œcontingent necessityâ€) and repressions of the Symbolic. In particular, Lacanâ€™s attention turned from negotiating the Imaginary identity of the subject within the Symbolic to a notion of the subject as the split and void that separates the Imaginary ego from its Symbolic unconscious.5 Later still, he would point to those relatively rare moments of â€œsubjectivationâ€, when individuals attend to, and identify with, the cause of their desire â€“ what he termed â€œtraversing the fundamental fantasyâ€.6 That is to say, by attending to the remainder of a unity possessed prior to the split engendered in becoming in the big Other â€“ a remainder expressed as a fundamental fantasy, Lacanâ€™s petit objet a â€“ the individual achieves an encounter with the Real and gains a certain subjective power over the split which alienates them, by subjectifying the desires shaped by that split.
For his part, ï¾Žiï¾žek pursues a more or less direct mapping of Lacanâ€™s psychoanalytic theory onto the political sphere, the trajectory of his work mirroring in important respects that of Lacan himself.7 Hence, in his earlier work he attempts to demonstrate how the postmodern obsession with the play of signifiers and the infinite possibilities of deconstruction obscures those â€˜symptomsâ€™ that point to the Imaginary-Symbolic-Real structure of the contemporary socio-cultural and discursive situation.8 Indeed, he considers postmodernism (and poststructuralism in its resonances with the postmodern) to be a particularly insidious subordination to the cultural superego, which in its Lacanian conception operates not merely by prohibition, but additionally through the injunction to â€œenjoy your symptomâ€. In ï¾Žiï¾žekâ€™s view, the ironic distance from and cynicism toward commitment and action are the correlate of our postmodern enjoyment of difference predicted by Lacanian theory.
Drawing on Lacanâ€™s later notion of the â€œsinthomeâ€, he attempts to bring into focus those specific socio-cultural and discursive â€˜symptomsâ€™, the enjoyment of which, function to hold together the Symbolic against irruptions of the Real â€“ irruptions which reveal the formerâ€™s necessity to be a radical contingency and thus point to the inherent instability of the Symbolic. In this context, mirroring Lacanâ€™s â€œtraversing the fantasyâ€, ï¾Žiï¾žek advocates and performs, as a political strategy, an â€œoveridentificationâ€ with those decisive cultural and political â€˜symptomsâ€™ that he uncovers, in a complex â€œacting outâ€ of societyâ€™s neurotic, psychotic and hysterical symptoms, designed to provoke readers into a confrontation with the Real of our socio-cultural context.9
More recently, ï¾Žiï¾žek has acknowledged his excessive dependence on Lacanâ€™s early conceptualisation of the Real as a kind of quasi-Kantian noumenal Thing, positing instead a Real that better resonates with Lacanâ€™s later emphasis upon â€œtraversing the fantasyâ€.10 Hence, ï¾Žiï¾žek now posits a Real that is thoroughly immanent and reveals itself not as the void of the Symbolic, but as the â€œminimal differenceâ€ by which things differ from themselves within it. In this framework, one encounters not only a â€œreal Realâ€, but a â€œsymbolic Realâ€ and an â€œimaginary Realâ€ as well, such that the Real is woven into the fabric of the Imaginary-Symbolic-Real framework as its internal self-difference. If the first is the early Lacanian â€œhorrifying Thingâ€, the symbolic Real is constituted by those points where our significations of reality can no longer be translated into everyday terms (ï¾Žiï¾žek gives the example of quantum representations of reality), while the imaginary Real refers to the quality which allows the sublime to shine through ordinary objects.11 This nuancing of his position notwithstanding, he nonetheless continues to argue for the singularity of the Real in relation to the Symbolic and Imaginary, the encounter with which offers us the possibility of radically and effectively engaging the complexities and ambiguities of the present.
For Badiou, by contrast, the importance of Lacan lies more indirectly in the resources toward a theory of the event offered by the conception of the Real as a void which irrupts into the Symbolic. At the same time, Badiou rejects as â€œantiphilosophyâ€ Lacanâ€™s notion that such decisive events are centred upon the drives generated by quasi-originary constructions of identity. Rather, Badiou focuses upon events as â€œhaphazardâ€ occurrences that interrupt a given situation, allowing for genuinely new beginnings. At the same time, he retains the Lacanian notion of the Real as that which is irreducibly repressed by the Symbolic. While the event is of the same order of being as the elements of the situation in which it irrupts, it counts as nothing in the situation and is unrepresentable within it. Moreover, for Badiou, subjectivity does not coincide with the void of such an irruption, but is constituted after the event, in fidelity to it, when the unpresentable event must be asserted.12
Specifically, subjectivation takes place in the naming of the event, that is, in a subjective deciding upon its intrinsic undecidability â€“ a naming which avoids reduction to decisionism by grounding itself in the event. This subjective naming involves the endless labour of clarifying the specific truth of an event, by identifying its â€œevental siteâ€ within the situation â€“ the site of the event within the situation, which is nonetheless not specified by the situation, but rather which reveals the void of the situation. In particular, this process involves tracing the â€œedge of the voidâ€ where the event irrupts upon each specific element of the situation. Truth emerges, not as a contribution to prevailing systems of knowledge, but in its singularity as the specific truth of the event, a truth nonetheless universal to the situation. This truth can be arrived at only through the â€˜subtractionâ€™ of all elements specific to the situation, the event constituting that which is present but unrepresented within each of the situational elements.
Even as Badiou departs significantly from Lacan, he adopts elements of the deep structure of his thought. Indeed, against the differing and deferrals of poststructuralist difference both Badiou and ï¾Žiï¾žek variously forge the possibility of articulating singular symptoms or events of the Real and the singular truth of current situations or events. And for both, a singular self â€“ a subjectivation in fidelity to the event of the Real or a subjectivation coincident with it â€“ is integral to intellectual practice.
Thinking differently and the Aging Relationship with the Self
Against this backdrop, the later Foucaultâ€™s conception of the care of the self, especially conceived as an â€œaesthetics of existenceâ€, appears to be vulnerable of the criticisms of Badiou and ï¾Žiï¾žek. This is particularly so when Foucault, in his account of an aesthetics of existence, draws explicitly upon Baudelaireâ€™s dandy moving through a succession of fleeting moments in his evocations of a contemporary care of the self.13 Not only does Foucault appear to remain firmly within the co-ordinates of the Imaginary-Symbolic framework that dominated the work of the early Lacan, as Fabio Vighi and Heiko Feldner argue, but he appears to celebrate the pursuit of a difference without a Real.14 In this regard, ï¾Žiï¾žek claims that the later Foucault remains enmeshed in a humanist elitism which holds that the Imaginary self is capable of adequately negotiating in itself all of the signifying forces of the Symbolic.15 Indeed, in his introduction to his revised history of sexuality project in 1984, reflecting on the complex set of transformations, which his work had undergone in that period, not least his reorientation of his history of sexuality to resurrect a question of the self, Foucault stresses that the underlying philosophical problematic is one of a radical becoming other: â€œto know how and to what extent it might be possible to think differently, instead of legitimating what is already knownâ€.16 Deploying several metaphors, he stresses and valorises thought as a pure becoming other: it is an â€œessayâ€ after difference, irreducible to our prevailing categories of thought, a â€˜becoming otherâ€™ in a philosophical â€œaskesisâ€ brought to bear on the self, and a decisive Ausgang from prevailing modes of thought.
Having taken pains to stress this dimension of thought, however, he unexpectedly states:
There is irony in these efforts one makes to alter oneâ€™s way of looking at things, to change the boundaries of what one knows and to venture out a ways from there. Did mine actually result in a different way of thinking? Perhaps at most they made it possible to go back through what I was already thinking, to think it differently, and to see what I had done from a new vantage point and in a clearer light. Sure of having travelled far, one finds that one is looking down on oneself from above. The journey rejuvenates things, and ages the relationship with oneself.17
At one level these comments simply state that the work of his final years has greater continuity with his earlier formulation of the project of a history of sexuality than might be expected in view of the eight years of reformulation and rewriting of what HervÃ© Guibert, in his fictionalised account of Foucaultâ€™s later years, termed his â€œendless bookâ€.18 However, the precise formulation is provocative in its implications for his philosophical practice. Indeed, it bears similarities to other, apparently incidental asides that Foucault tended to deploy when he wished to indicate unexpected consequences of a given analysis that might well call for a radical revision of his prior presuppositions.19
To grasp the import of these comments it is worth recalling Rudi Viskerâ€™s view that the â€œdecentred selfâ€ of poststructuralist thought is not finally fully decentred but finds that it â€œis attached to â€˜somethingâ€™ to which it does not find access and from which it cannot rid itself.â€20 Foucault evokes precisely such a sense of the circumscription of the possibility of thinking differently and so of becoming other â€“ a sense that the relation to oneself circles about a distribution of more or less fixed points, a out certain specific problematics, without that â€˜somethingâ€™ to which it is attached ever becoming accessible. Insofar as he describes finding himself at a height looking down upon himself, it might be said that if the sites of becoming other constitute a finite â€œconstellationâ€ (on a horizontal plane, as it were) about an inaccessible singularity â€“ even permitting a diversity of experience or intentions over a lifetime â€“ then, â€˜becoming otherâ€™ is constituted by a vector, a trajectory, in another (vertical) plane. As such, the notion of the aging of the relation to oneself would point to a qualitatively different relation, a different perspective, a useful distance from oneself.21
The notion that such a singular â€˜somethingâ€™ might be signalled in this aside is given credence by an anecdote recounted by Foucaultâ€™s colleague at the CollÃ¨ge de France, Paul Veyne. Veyne recalls watching television with Foucault one evening in the 1980s. On a programme that they watched, a man caught up in the midst of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (on which side Veyne does not remember) spoke directly, with passion of what drove him on. The man concluded, â€œI donâ€™t know where this passion comes from, but there it isâ€. Veyne tells how Foucault declared, â€œThere we have it at lastâ€¦everything has been said, thereâ€™s nothing more to say.â€22 It is reasonable to suppose that Foucault might consider such an inaccessible passion to underlie and find expression in the constellation of problematics about which he finds his own work circling, even as he pursues a radical strategy of becoming other.
Indeed, a broadly similar practice of thought, simultaneously committed to a radical becoming other yet driven by a singular passion, is found in the work of Foucaultâ€™s fellow-poststructuralist, Michel de Certeau â€“ specifically his later notion of the mystic as a â€˜nomadic selfâ€™.23 Inspired by Lacan no less than Badiou or ï¾Žiï¾žek, de Certeau posits a self driven by a singular â€œprimary passionâ€, that is, by a lack (of the lost Real), that can only recover the Real fleetingly in performing its primary passion upon â€˜otherâ€™ contexts â€“ contexts, which may prove opaque to that primary passion. That is to say, de Certeauâ€™s nomadic self can only attain to the Real in a radical becoming other which must risk the loss of identity and the total loss of that lost object toward which it strives, in a repeated saying â€œyes, in foreign landâ€.24 (Strictly, for the Christian de Certeau, this primary passion finds fulfilment in Jesus Christ, but since (for de Certeau) the risen Christ is paradoxically encountered in the empty tomb, this fulfilment itself functions as a Lacanian Real, a lacking or lost object, to be encountered in the performance of the Christian text in â€˜otherâ€™ contexts.) Moreover, for de Certeau, as for Foucault, this performance of oneâ€™s (primary) passion leads to a discernable â€˜constellationâ€™ of effects of the Real emerging: those marks that accumulate and crystallise on the body of the nomad as a consequence of his or her experiences reflect the singularity of the passion that drove it. Indeed, for the later de Certeau, those bodily marks become, if anything, more important than the Real as such.
Although Foucaultâ€™s comments do not bear the specific Lacanian sense of Certeauâ€™s â€œprimary passionâ€, they point to a similar poststructuralist practice of thought whose radical becoming other is informed and driven by a fundamental passion or passions, which are articulated in the constellation of the elements of oneâ€™s thought, its problematics, and preoccupations, even as that passion or those passions are not reducible to them.25 If it is thus possible to conceive of a singularity of self in the later Foucault, questions arise as to the precise extent to which such a conception suggests an image of thought additionally attentive to the singularity of events and of the Real, and, the relation of Foucauldian singularity to that of Badiou and ï¾Žiï¾žek. To answer these questions, it is necessary to consider Foucaultâ€™s elaboration of the ethics of care of the self.
Care of the self
Foucault took inspiration for his discovery of an ethics of care of the self in ancient Greek texts from Pierre Hadot, who, in a seminal 1977 essay, had posited that philosophical activity in the ancient world could not be adequately encapsulated in the notions of either â€œthought exercisesâ€ or â€œethical exercisesâ€, but only by the range of significations implied by â€œspiritual exercisesâ€ â€“ that is, exercises that involve not merely â€œthought but…the individualâ€™s entire psychismâ€.26 The breakthrough in formulating an ethics of care of the self, came for Foucault, when, departing from Hadotâ€™s view that such spiritual exercises were integrally oriented to the individualâ€™s participation in universal truth, he conceived of the â€œcare of the selfâ€ as a phenomenon distinct from such participation. While acknowledging that care of the self had never fully resolved itself within Greek culture, he nonetheless argued that beginning from Platoâ€™s Alcibiades, in which care of the self served as a preparation for the young male citizen toward entering into public life, the gradual emergence of a whole â€œculture of the selfâ€ could be discerned. While still retaining the dimension of being a counterpoint to public leadership, this more developed care of the self would be exercised daily throughout oneâ€™s life as a thoroughgoing â€œpractice of the selfâ€ or â€œart of existenceâ€ â€“ perhaps under the guidance of a master or supported by friendship.27
In particular, he contrasted the care of the self with two major notions of conversion in the ancient world, which Hadot had identified in an early essay: Platonic epistrophÄ“ and Christian metanoia. Platonic epistrophÄ“ consists in â€œa movement leading us from this world to the otherâ€, a liberation from immanent experience toward knowledge, whose primary mode is â€œrecollectionâ€.28 By contrast, Foucault argues, â€˜conversionâ€™ within the â€œculture of the selfâ€ is characterised by the movement toward the â€œcomplete, perfect, and adequate relation of the self to the selfâ€, and is concerned with practices of the self rather than â€œrecollectionâ€ of an external truth â€“ with knowledge as spiritual practices rather than as knowledge of a field of study.
In turn, Christian metanoia consists in a â€œsudden, dramatic, historical-metahistorical upheaval of the subjectâ€¦a transition from one type of being to anotherâ€ â€“ in a â€œbreakâ€ in the subject, â€œa renunciation of oneself, dying to oneselfâ€ â€“ what Foucault terms a â€œtrans-subjectivationâ€.29 By contrast, in conversion within the culture of the self â€œthere is not exactly a breakâ€. Or rather, more precisely, â€œthere is not a caesura within the self by which the self tears itself away from itselfâ€¦The break must be carried out with what surrounds itself so that it is not enslaved, dependent, and constrainedâ€.30 Foucault describes a whole movement of â€œwithdrawalâ€ from the world, a â€œreturn to portâ€, which is at one and the same time a turning toward the self as â€œtoward an endâ€ in a movement of the self – an â€œaskÄ“sisâ€, an exercise upon the self which precisely signifies a rejoining of the self, rather than the renunciation of the self the term will signify within Christianity.31 The care of the self comes to constitute a continuous movement toward the self, by which the relation to the self and freedom are perfected â€“ what Foucault terms a process of â€œself-subjectivationâ€. Insofar as the self falls subject to the multiple forces within which it must daily operate within the polis, the relation or return to the self is simultaneously a freeing of oneself from oneself (se dÃ©prendre de soi-mÃªme).
Foucault thus argues that â€œself-subjectivationâ€ is not the process of â€œobjectification of the self in a true discourseâ€ as found either in the Platonic reconciliation of individual will with the universal, through the recollection of the true, or in the Christian confession of the real within oneself in obedience to an external authority, which comes to be central to the (permanent) process of metanoia. Rather, it is â€œthe subjectivation of a true discourse in a practice of oneself on oneselfâ€ in which one becomes a â€œsubject of veridictionâ€.32
In view of its evocativeness for intellectual practice, Foucault places considerable importance upon the practice of utilising hupomnÄ“mata, or aids to memory, especially among the Stoics and Epicureans, as a means of recalling the masterâ€™s discourse in exercises of the self.33 While acknowledging that the term, hupomnÄ“mata, had a wide range of reference, Foucault focuses upon the specific sense it bore of quotations heard or remembered, especially those of oneâ€™s master, which one wrote down to be used subsequently as a resource in meditation upon specific personal difficulties or theoretical problems. In Foucaultâ€™s view, the principal purpose of these quotations was neither as an aid to memory as such, nor as fragments of a personal narrative or journal. Rather, they were used as a means of recollecting the self in the midst of the disparate fragments of culture and discourse which one encountered in everyday life. Through them one might (re)establish a relationship of oneself to oneself, which would support an ethical, â€˜recollectedâ€™ path through life, enabling one to resist being buffeted about in a diffusion of oneâ€™s energies by these disparate fragments.34
Once more, the focus is not upon a true discourse of which the individual is object, but of the subjectivation of the individual through the use of elements of discourse. Foucault emphasises, in particular, how writing â€“ whether in the direct writing of hupomnÄ“mata or within correspondence â€“ formed a dimension of ascetic exercises of the self, having what he termed an â€œethopoieticâ€ function: that is to say, it functions as â€œan agent of the transformation of truth into ethos,â€ a veritable â€œself writingâ€. Citing Seneca, in particular, Foucault points out how this process both respects the heterogeneity of these disparate elements and engages in a process of unification. This unification is, however, neither formal nor systematic, relating not to the unity of discourse, but to the unity of the process of subjectivation. It constitutes a formation of the subject in and through these elements, yet is thoroughly a unity of the â€˜authorâ€™ of these notebooks.35
When overlaid with his notion of an â€œaesthetics of existenceâ€, Foucaultâ€™s ethics of care of the self again appears susceptible to ï¾Žiï¾žekâ€™s critique (that it reflects a humanist-elitist self capable of constituting the site of integrating of the multiple, divergent forces that constitute the socio-cultural sphere), or alternatively to Badiouâ€™s implicit criticism of Foucaultâ€™s tendency to separate subjectivation from truth, and to constitute the former as an aesthetic rather than an evental process. While it may be possible to understand the â€œreturn to selfâ€ as pointing to a certain singularity of self, it is rather more difficult to ascertain how this relation to the self might support or stand in relation to singular events and the Real.
Two critical points are to be noted here, however. First, Foucaultâ€™s death in 1984 shortly after the publication of the second and third volumes of his history of sexuality means that he never had an opportunity to clarify how these practices of care of the self stand in relation to his preceding work. That they did, and in a complex fashion, is highlighted by Veyne when he suggests that Foucaultâ€™s reading of these ancient texts served for him as a practice of care of his own self, of developing a relation to his own self and his preceding work.36 Second, although Foucault discovers something distinctively different and important in the notion of the care of the self from what he had discovered in early Christian practices, it will only be in his analysis of cynic practices of care of the self in his CollÃ¨ge de France lecture courses in 1983 and 1984 that he discovers practices of the self whose political and ethical tenor are closer to his own. Among the cynics he found a practice of care of the self conducted, not in quiet recollection apart from the bustle of the polis, but in a public frank-speaking (parrhesia) which risks all, even perhaps life itself, in revealing to the polis the absurdities of its rationality.37 Even here, however, the deeper resonances with Foucaultâ€™s own practice of thought should not be mistaken for a simple identification with what he termed the â€œphilosophical grimaceâ€ of the cynics.38 That is to say, not only does he perform the care of the self he discovers in these texts, he does so at varying degrees of distance from their ancient forms. (On being asked what he thought of the Greeks, Foucault responded, â€œNot very muchâ€.)39 It is thus important to reconstruct what a contemporary Foucauldian practice of care of the self might entail, and how such a practice evolves in light of his final lecture courses.
Care of the Self as Modulation of Foucaultâ€™s Earlier Practice
In his later articles and interviews, it is possible to see outward signs of Foucault pursuing the kind of care of himself and self writing of which Veyne speaks. As he reads these ancient texts, he is enabled to arrive at a renewed appreciation of what his archaeologies of the 1960s work and his genealogies of the 1970s had involved and to gain a critical distance from it â€“ in a simultaneous movement of returning to and of freeing himself from himself. In particular, beyond his earlier preoccupations with the death of the subject, he is able to re-conceive his thought as having always revolved around three critical problematics: namely â€˜knowledgeâ€™, â€˜powerâ€™, and â€˜subjectivityâ€™. It is not that he r troactively interpret