Friday, November 4, 2011

Art, Zen, and Insurrection: Finding Personal and Social Change In The Aesthetic Existence Part IV.3

This is Part IV.3 of the Art, Zen, And Insurrection project. Here is a table of contents:
IV.3. The Aesthetic Existence And Foucaultian ‘Individual Politics’

7. The Problem of Foucault: The Aesthetic Existence And The Individualization of Politics
8. Foucault as Artist: His Autobiographical Monographs as The Imaginative Expressions of Emotion
9. Politics And Personal Issues
10. Personal Actions As Political And Apolitical: Foucault And The Depoliticization Of The Self
11. Art And The Struggle Against Individual Corruption Of Consciousness: Concluding Part IV.3

IV.3. The Aesthetic Existence And Foucaultian ‘Individual Politics’
In the next two sections I want to understand if and how the aesthetic existence can be conceptualized as a political project. In order to do that I need to determine the political boundaries of thought and action. I need to determine what is and is not a political action in the mind. Clearly civilization is a mental process, it involves a mental component. Collingwood argues that “ ‘civilization’ is primarily the name of a process whereby a community... undergoes a mental... change from a condition of relative barbarity to one of relative civility” (The New Leviathan, 289). Politics is therefore about individual minds, their contents, and the bodies they are embodied in.
My body and my thoughts are politically formed or constituted. Political processes provide the frame work for my most personal thoughts, feelings, and actions. Politics condition, for example, my sexual thoughts, my attitude towards others and myself, and the actions I take in my day to day life to secure my means to subsistence. My thoughts and my body are therefore constitute by properly political processes. But does this mean that every thought or action that goes counter to the political nature of my thoughts is also ‘political’? Does all this imply that changing your own thoughts is a political process? My gut reaction is no. There must be a way to distinguish whether a thought or action is political or not. This is what I mean when I say that I want to determine the political boundaries of thought and action. That is the first step in understanding the political implications of the aesthetic existence, and the task of this section.
The thinker I most need to reckon with is Foucault. He is the one who planted this seed in my mind about the political nature of the mind and body. He is the one who told me that the transformation of my own mind and body constitutes a political action, an insurrection of knowledge. This section therefore will primarily be an inquiry into Foucault’s definition of the political and an attempt to refute his definition and its implications. This means grappling with Foucault’s oeuvre in an attempt to see him not as a political philosopher, but as one concerned primarily with “his private moral quest” (Lilla, 154).
7. The Problem of Foucault: The Aesthetics Of Existence And The Individualization of Politics
The title of this section is ‘the problem of Foucault’. I am referring primarily to my problem with Foucault. Which is that he blurred the line between peace and war to an extent that made me uncomfortable. He put me in a position in which I was no longer able to conceptually distinguish between the violence of peace, and the violence of war. In his definition of politics/power everything becomes a matter of politics. Our bodies, our minds, our thoughts, all of it. They all become a matter of politics, violence, war, struggle, so on. I tried to clear up the issue of violence in war and peace in Part IV.1, and I think I did enough for now. In this part, however, I need to try and draw the political limitations of the mind.
First I’ll be elaborating Foucault’s main argument from Discipline & Punish. I’ll then try to show how D&P, when read in conjunction with History Of Sexuality Volume I and Society Must Be Defended, elaborates a definition of politics and war in which every action and every thought becomes political. When these ideas are carried to their logical outcome the creation of knowledge becomes an act of ‘insurrection’, and we can in essence ‘wage a war in our own minds’. I’ll then spend a few sections refuting this idea, trying to show that there is a limit to what is and what is not political in the world of thought and action. I’ll do this both by examining the scope of Focault’s oeuvre, by analyzing his personal engagement with politics, and by engaging directly with his ideas. In short, I will show using both biographical and conceptual arguments that Foucault’s definition of politics and power needs to be reconfigured to take into account the apolitical nature of some forms of thought and action. In fact, I will argue that what Foucault truly sought was the depoliticization of certain forms of experience.
In Discipline & Punish Foucault (as usual) writes a sweeping history of the rise of the French prison systems. His main task is to explain how a judicial system based on torture transformed into one based on incarceration. Foucault argues that this judicial transition is primarily characterized by a shift away from the criminal’s body to his soul. That is to say, instead of violently controlling the criminal’s body, the sovereign begins to control the mind of the criminal. This mental control is achieved, Foucault argues, through a diverse set of loosely connected institutions that produce scientific knowledge that is able to exert a normalizing effect on a population. In other words, psychiatric, medical, educational, and legal institutions form a loose ‘apparatus’ that produces an interconnected body of knowledge that regulates individuals from within their own minds. Foucault claims that these diverse institutions are wielding ‘disciplinary power’: the power to create knowledge that can control and regulate the thoughts and movements of individual bodies. Or, as Zizek puts it, there are “very real undemocratic elements that sustain democracy. Does therein not reside the premise premise of Foucault’s... analyses of modern power: democratic power has to be sustained by a complex network of controlling and regulating mechanisms?” (IDOLC, 105). Discipline & Punish thus shows how government’s went from controlling populations through physical violence to regulating them through the production of knowledge.
One consistent theme in Foucault’s description is the use of militaristic metaphors. Foucault implies that both torture and disciplinary power are in some ways akin to war. He explains how criminals were perceived to be "quite literally, enemy troops spreading over the surface of the territory, living as they wish, as in a conquered country, exacting levies under the name of alms" (77). According to Foucault, "The right to punish, therefore, is an aspect of the sovereign's right to make war on his enemies: to punish belongs to 'that absolute power of life and death which Roman law calls merum imperium, right by virtue of which the prince sees that his law is respected by ordering the punishment of crime'" (48). The references in Discipline & Punish to war and disciplinary power are less explicit. But for some reason, when I wrote ‘Society’s Implicit War’ I was under the impression that it was heavily implied that disciplinary power also constituted a war of sorts. The only difference is that it is no longer a war of direct violence, but a war of ideas, of knowledge, of minds. An ‘implicit’ war of knowledge, rather than an explicit war of violence.
Even if Discipline & Punish is vague on this point, the Society Must Be Defended lectures are clearer. In those lectures, delivered between the publication of D&P and Volume I of HOS, Foucault continues his inquiry into the nature of modern power. His main goal is to analyze the relationship between political power and war. He examines discourses that claimed that ‘peace’ as we know it is merely a continuation of war. He examines thinkers who inverted Clausewitz’s famous phrase, and instead assert that politics is the continuation of war by other means. The question, then, becomes, “If we look beneath peace, order, wealth, and authority, beneath the calm order of subordinations, beneath the State and State apparatuses, beneath the laws, and so on, will we hear and discover a sort of primitive and permanent war?... Can the phenomenon of war be regarded as primary with respect to other relations (relations of inequality, dissymmetries, divisions of labor, et cetera)?” (46-47). The question is about the division between peace and war. If we look back into history won’t we discover the ‘founding crime’ of every nation? Isn’t all peace somehow ordered by something that was decided in war? Even if a political institution attempt to minimize violence during peace, “it certainly does not do so in order to suspend the effects of power or to neutralize the disequilibrium revealed by the last battle of the war” (15). On the contrary, Foucault claims that by this logic the task of political institutions “is perpetually to use a sort of silent war to reinscribe that relationship of force, and to reinscribe it in institutions, economic inequalities, language, and even the bodies of individuals” (16). Politics, therefore, is the continuation of war by other means, and political institutions are just way of waging this war through less-violent means.
If we follow this logic then we arrive at some interesting implications. For one thing, it means that the disciplinary society that Foucault describes is in essence a way of waging an ongoing war. Further, it means that the production of normalizing knowledge, the hallmark of disciplinary society and the origin of Foucault’s well known concept of power/knowledge, can be spoken of as a militaristic or war-like practice. If society is in reality an ongoing war being waged through other means, and one of those means is knowledge, then we are justified in speaking of the creation of knowledge as an act of war. It is this logic that allows Foucault to claim that his genealogical histories are “about the insurrection of knowledges.... above all, primarily, an insurrection against the centralizing power-effects that are bound up with the institutionalization and workings of any scientific discourse organized in a society such as ours” (9). To produce a discourse that is counter to the State-sanctioned normalizing discourse is an act of ‘insurrection’. Foucault’s task is noble. It is important to recognize the relationship between power and knowledge, to see that if people are to act to change things they need to have access to certain types of understandings. His definition of genealogy as the “coupling together of scholarly erudition and local memories, which allows us to constitute a historical knowledge of struggles and to make use of that knowledge in contemporary tactics” makes sense to me. But the thing that strikes me the most is that Foucault is willing to call the writing of history an act of ‘insurrection’.
By this definition of politics/power, the individual body, too, can be described in expressly militaristic ways. Recall above that Foucault said that ‘even the bodies of individuals’ were inscribed by the political institutions that were waging on ongoing war. The entire existence of the body and mind are therefore politically charged. All actions, all thoughts, all bodily practices are in some way political. This seems to imply that to transform an individual body, mind, or practice is an inherently political action. This idea led me to write about how I could wage a war in my own mind, have a battle with my thoughts, or how my body is a protest or something like that. But I don’t like this way of thinking, despite how guilty I am of doing it in the past. I have written this way many times. And it was because of Foucault. I was operating in his framework, taking his arguments and teasing out their logic. And this is where it left me: Knowledge is being used to wage an implicit war, my thoughts and actions are thoroughly political, and to challenge them is an act of ‘intellectual insurrection’ or something like that. I dislike this way of thinking.
This mode of thinking is problematic mainly because it blurs the line between war, politics, and individual living to the point that I can’t analytically distinguish meaningful political thought or action. I don’t know why it is so difficult for me to come to terms with this issue of militaristic metaphors. Part of me started thinking that it was irresponsible to speak of writing history, or rebelling against my own thinking, as a form of ‘insurrection’. It is nothing like war. There are no people being killed when we write history, or when we struggle with our minds and bodies. There are no bodies being torn apart.
It doesn’t sit right with me to politicize the mind and body to the point of speaking of them as being in a constant war. It doesn’t sit right with me to use militaristic metaphors to describe mental and intellectual processes. This is the problem of Foucault that I am referring to. Politics is so individualized that we are justified in speaking of our minds as a battle ground, justified in speaking of our intellectual work as an act of insurrection.
So now I’d like to present some arguments against this conception of politics. The main thing that I want to establish is that the aesthetic existence is not political only in the Foucaultian sense. It is not political in the sense that it is an attempt to overcome the discourses that have inscribed themselves into my heart and practices. I do not want to appeal to any kind of ‘individual politics’ like Foucault advocates. I hope it might be properly political. I sort of established this definition of politics and war in Part IV.1. But in that essay I was coming at it from other authors, taking a positive approach, trying to define politics and war in their own right. Now I am approaching the problem negatively by explicitly refuting Foucault. First I’m going to evaluate the scope of Foucault’s oeuvre and claim that he was, at his core, not a political philosopher. Then I’ll look at some definitions of politics more closely and explain how certain issues can be politically charged, but that does not mean that every action that takes place within their realm is properly political. Sexuality, for example, is politically charged in that political institutions effect it. To embrace a different type of sexual practice than what is State-sanctioned, however, is not inherently a political act. From there I’ll try to wrap it up and talk about what actions are properly political and which are not. I’m not sure why this type of analysis is important, and I’m not sure where its going to go. But here I go.
8. Foucault as Artist: His Autobiographical Monographs as Imaginative Expressions of Emotion
The task of this section is to argue that Foucault, in his core, was not a political thinker. But was rather a person engaged on a private philosophical-moral quest. That private quest, however, may have political implications. The crucial point is simply that it was not his primary concern. He is best characterized as a philosophical and existential artist.
When evaluating Foucault’s commitment to political thought it is useful to begin with the flow and direction of his oeuvre. If we only look at the Foucault of the mid 70’s he appears to be a thoroughly political thinker. He was protesting with students on the streets. He was having conversations with Maoists, talking about violence, about war, about revolution, about the relationship between intellectuals and revolutions, and so on. Foucault’s earlier work, however, was not expressly political in nature. He was concerned with large histories of institutions, and in particular, with the development of the human sciences. But he was not the political Foucault that we see in Discipline & Punish and The Will To Knowledge. Similarly, his final two books completely withdrew from the world of politics and focused instead on how an individual can craft themselves and live an aesthetic life. I aim to argue here, along with Mark Lilla and Zizek, that Foucault was ultimately a personal philosopher on a moral quest of his own. That his political engagements were not at the core of his thinking. That Foucault, in short, was more of an artist than an activist.
This view of Foucault is aggressively argued by Mark Lilla in The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals In Politics. In his brief biography he presents Foucault as an irresponsible thinker who made careless references to violence, and was only incidentally pulled into political matters. He frames Foucault as a ‘Nietzschan’ thinker in the sense that he was a thinker on a personal moral quest. And that until the 1968 student movements in France “his Nietzschean explorations had been limited to the Bibliotheque Nationale or closed rooms” (Lilla, 148). Suddenly Foucault was protesting in the streets with students, having conversations with Maoists, and talking about death and politics. Lilla claims that Foucault’s recklessness can be seen in one of his conversations on popular justice. Foucault said that “One should start with popular justice” (Power/Knowledge, 1) and that ultimately the state must “educate the masses and the will of the masses in such a way that it is the masses themselves who come to say, ‘in fact we cannot kill this man’ or ‘In fact we must kill him’.” (Ibid., 13). Lilla claims that Foucault’s political engagement was ultimately frivolous, that he merely “followed the... Parisian crowd” (Lilla, 153).
This reading of Foucault’s political engagement helps us make sense of his later work on ancient sexual morality and practices of the self. Lilla claims that Foucault abandoned “the illusion of transforming modern society as a whole” and “joined a smaller society of like-minded men who shared his tastes, outside the bounds of bourgeois respectability” (154). Lilla’s analysis shows Foucault to be an irresponsible thinker who fickly engaged with politics when it suited his whims. Foucault’s “life and his writings,” Lilla asserts, “show as clearly as one could wish just what happens when an essentially private thinker, struggling with his inner demons and intoxicated by Nietzsche’s example, projects them out onto a political sphere in which he has no real interest and for which he accepts no responsibility” (158). Harsh words. Lilla further claims that his notion of the ‘aesthetics of existence’ has no real political merit, and that “it is dangerous and absurd to think that such spiritual exercises could reveal anything about the shared political world we live in” (Ibid.). I value Lilla’s analysis because it gives me a way to grapple with Foucault’s whole oeuvre. It helps me understand that Foucault was a private thinker, an artist of sorts, and that his political engagement was a phase in his life. An important phase. But a phase nonetheless.
Zizek reads Foucault’s oeuvre in a similar way. In In Defense Of Lost Causes Zizek gauges Foucault’s political engagement by looking at his involvement with the Iranian revolution. I know very little about this phase in Foucault’s life. But apparently in 1978-79 Foucault visited Iran and was very interested in what was happening with the revolution there. This was in the years after the publication of Foucault’s most political book, and so presumably he was still in that frame of mind. Zizek, along with others, claims that the Iranian event was a crucial event that affected the direction of Foucault’s writing. I don’t know what happened, but apparently the whole thing didn’t end so well. He claims it is “no wonder, then, that, after his Iranian experience, Foucault withdrew to the topic of the care of the self, of the aesthetics of existence (and, politically, to supporting different human-rights initiatives...). (113). Zizek, too, believes that Foucault’s political engagement was ultimately a failure, and that later in his life he returned to his private moral quest.
One question I have for these two, however, is with regard to the political relevance of Foucault’s aesthetics of existence. Clearly, one of the crucial questions of this project, perhaps the question of this project, is whether the aesthetic existence is in anyways a political project. I believe that it can be. In the last section I believe that I started pointing at the possible ways it could be a political project. Indeed, Karen Vintges agrees with me in her essay “ ‘Must we Burn Foucault?’ Ethics as art of living: Simone de Beauvoir and Michel Foucault.” In that essay she argues that Foucault’s aesthetics of existence is indeed a political project. That Foucault “made philosophy out of his life and ‘lived’ his philosophy. With enormous power--and here I paraphrase Beauvoir on Sade--he transformed his eroticism from an individual attitude into a challenge to society, charging his experiences with an ethical significance” (3). Vintges says that he gave his actions ethical significance, but it also seems like political significance. Foucault was trying to change how people regarded their bodies and their practices. And he believed that this was a thoroughly political project. For Foucault, the personal was always political.
I appreciate Vintges’ moderate view here. She recognizes that Foucault was primarily on a personal quest, but that his quest still had political potential. I agree with her. I find Lilla and Zizek useful in that they free me from thinking of Foucault as a strictly political thinker. They bring to light the personal nature of his project, and the opportunism of his political engagement. They help me in this task of showing that Foucault was an artist rather than an activist. His work, I think, can be fairly described as the imaginative expression of emotions. He never seemed to know what precisely he was setting out to do. He called his writing a labyrinth in which he lost himself. He said he wrote spontaneously. Sounds like an artist to me. And, interestingly, he said that anytime he “tried to carry out a piece of theoretical work, it has been on the basis of my own experience, always in relation to processes I saw taking place around me. It is because I thought I could recognize in the things I saw, in the institutions with which I dealt, in my relations with others, cracks, silent shocks, malfunctionings... that I undertook a particular piece of work, a few fragments of an autobiography” (In Simons, Foucault and the political, 8). It is so interesting for him to characterize his books, which are so abstract, so thoroughly historico-philosophical, as fragments of an autobiography. Foucault was performing a genealogy of his own subject-hood.
Furthermore, this was an attempt at self-creation. This is a claim that Foucault explicitly made, and one that Vintges comments on. She says that “by putting his experiences in writing, he at the same time transformed or rather created himself” (Vintges). Roger Smith, too, comments on Foucault’s attempt at self-creation. In Being Human he says that Foucault “appeared to act out a life reflexively engaged with forming itself and the world even while describing the massive restraint on possibilities, for which the panopticon, or total institution, was a vivid symbol” (Smith, 248). This issue of art and self-creation is also addressed by Collingwood in The Principles. Collingwood says that the artist is someone who simultaneously comes to know his world and create his world: The artist’s “knowing of this new world is also the making of the new world which he is coming to know. The world he has come to know is a world consisting of language; a world where everything has the property of expressing emotion.... He is not god, but a finite mind still at a very elementary stage in the development of his powers. He has made it ‘out of’ what is presented to him in the still more elementary stage of purely psychical experience” (291). Because experience is linguistically constituted, the use of language to express oneself introduces new language into the world, it is therefore a creation of the world. To express is to create. All this assumes that philosophy is an art, or can be an art. And I certainly believe that it is. This is why Collingwood called philosophy ‘a poem of the intellect’.
This is a little meandering and unclear. But it should be clear that Foucault is best thought of as an artist, and not an activist. His work was deeply personal. He called it part of an autobiography. He was expressing things about himself and his world that he saw around him. His work has many of the hallmarks of Collingwood’s definition of aesthetics. And his final work is a testament to his interest in art, and life as an art form. He was a philosophical artist, involved in the business of creating himself and the world around him.
This does not mean that Foucault’s project has no political implications. It is the task of Part IV.4 to explore those political implications. But for now I need to level out my perspective on Foucault a little bit: he was not thoroughly political, some of his political thinking was misguided, and it needs revision.
Now that I’ve shown that Foucault was primarily an artist, I’d like to return to the notion of politics proper again. I now need to try and accomplish the main task of this section: drawing a line between the personal and the political.
9. Politics And Personal Issues
At the core of this is all is the idea that ‘the personal is political’. But what does it mean for the personal to be political? It means that the way we experience our lives is a byproduct of political processes. Our lives are politically charged through and through. Our sexual relations are hotly contested in political discussions (abortions, gay marriage), our economic lives are a hot topic (socialism, democracy, communism, etc.), and our health is closely monitored (disease, obesity, etc.). But just because the political process affects our personal lives, does this mean that personal actions are inherently political, despite their context? What does it mean for something to be properly political? The latter question is the one I wish to pursue.
My gut reaction to the question is that politics is a process by which a community makes decisions about agonistic situations. It must be about a group of people making decisions about conflicts. Further, I think of politics as being inseparable from the possibility of warfare. Indeed, I know of several scholars who share this belief about war and the existence of the state. Francis Fukayama, for one, advocated this view of the State when I saw him speak at Seattle’s town hall. Charles Tilly famously said that war makes the state and the state makes war. But there are three other thinkers making this claim who I know much better: Carl Schmitt, John Gray, and Slavoj Zizek.
Part of me is dismayed, though, because I already explicated Schmitt and Gray’s agonistic conceptions of politics in Part IV.1, and therefore I don’t feel like it. I merely refer you to those sections for the proof that Gray and Schmitt define politics as an inherently agonistic process of communal decision making.
I will, however, briefly explicate Zizek’s claim about the nature of politics. For one thing, Zizek says that democracy must be sustained by certain undemocratic elements. “If the state, democratic though it may be, is not sustained by this specter of the unconditional exercise of power,” he argues, “it does not have the authority to function: power is, by definition, in excess, or else it is not power” (IDOLC, 105). Later on in the book he discusses how democracy is all about a group of impassioned people making collective decisions. He says that “when leftists deplore the fact that today only the Right has passion, is able to propose a new mobilizing imaginary, and that the left only engages in administration, what they do not see is the structural necessity of what they perceive as a mere tactical weakness of the left. No wonder that the European project which is widely debated today fails to enflame the passions: it is ultimately a project of administration, not of ideological commitment” (101). This critique of politics as administration echos Gray’s claims. He argues that contemporary politicians and theorists have abandoned ‘proper politics’ for an overly-legal model of political decision making. “[T]he practice of politics,” he thus asserts, “is a noble engagement, precisely on account of the almost desperate humility of its purposes – which are to moderate the enmity of agonistic identities, and to generate conventions of peace among warring communities. The pluralist embrace of politics is, for these reasons, merely a recognition of the reality of political life, itself conceived as an abatement of war” (Gray, 194). Politics cannot be merely ‘anything that happens in the field of force relations’ as Foucault claims. It must be a larger, more communal process of agonism.
If we side with Schmitt, Gray, and Zizek, then politics must be a large, communal, agonistic process, and cannot be the personal sort of thing that Foucault acts like it is. There can be no politics alone in a room. And this is my problem with Foucault’s work, he makes it sound like it is an act of ‘intellectual insurrection’ to change your thoughts alone in your room. But I’m not sure if this is really what Foucault intended. I might be reading this into him. I don’t know him well enough yet. But it seems like a logical outcome of Foucault’s work, as I explained above, that the mind itself is thoroughly political, and independent acts of thought would therefore be political. But not so. Politics must be large, communal, and agonistic.
Yet, there must be a relationship between the political and the personal. I explained above how all those little things that constitute our personal lives are decided politically. Well, I think Zizek puts the relationship between personal life and politics quite well. He argues that “there is no proper content of politics; all political struggles and decisions concern other specific spheres of social life (taxation, the regulation of sexual mores and procreation, the health service, and so on and so forth) – ‘politics’ is merely a formal mode of dealing with these topics, insofar as they emerge as topics of public struggle and decision. This is why ‘everything is (or, rather, can become) political’ – insofar as it becomes a stake in a political struggle” (IDOLC, 290). Every part of our personal lives can therefore become political. But that does not mean that every action at every moment is politically charged. In fact, I think sometimes our actions might exist in an apolitical space. Moreover, I believe that Foucault is actually pursuing this type of apolitical space. Let me move on to this point.
10. Personal Actions As Political And Apolitical: Foucault’s And The Depoliticization Of The Self
I can now say that the relationship between the personal and the political lies in the way that properly political debates often structure the most important parts of our social lives. The fact that our social lives are politically constituted, however, does not mean that every thought and action is always political. But drawing this line is proving a difficult task for me. I don’t know how to state this clearly. This line between the personal and the political. They obviously blur in some instances. The main thing I want to say is not political is an act of thought alone in a room. Perhaps the thought is in opposition to the dominant ideas of my political environment. But just because I am working against politically constituted ideas in my own mind it does not mean that my thinking is political. But then I wonder about the fact that thoughts need to happen in order for people to be active in the streets. You can’t have any kind of actual political movement unless people are learning to think differently. So this is why it gets weird to think about where politics and end begin.
Perhaps this idea will help: the universal and the particular of politics. When I define politics as a communal process of agonistic decision making I am being general and abstract. I am speaking as if politics has a universal form. Politics, naturally, is not a universal thing, but only has particular historical manifestations. And right now, in America and elsewhere, political activity is heavily regulated with highly organized militaries. Our particular moment in politics is quite strange. Something like I described in Part IV.2. In order for something to qualify as political, nowadays, it would need to somehow interact with that highly organized sphere of bureaucracies, corporations, and militaries. Would it be fair to call a one on one conversation political at all times? In one sense, yes. It involves a certain amount of power relations. But when trying to draw a line between war and peace and the personal and political I have to say that it cannot be properly political. It has nothing to do with the real political sphere. Unless of course those two people are talking and collaborating on setting up a bomb somewhere. Then that talking leads directly to them blowing up a government building or something. Then that conversation would be properly political. But only if it led to that ending. Thoughts that don’t lead to action in the real world of politics do not possess a properly political quality.
Foucault, however, is an interesting case when it comes to the politics of thinking. Earlier I cited Vintges when she claimed that Foucault managed to politically charge his actions. He was, indeed, in front of a sizable audience and his words may have pushed someone to do something, and still may. But I am just wary of drawing a line somewhere. Foucault’s life, his thinking and his expression may have been properly political. He may have had an affect on a political process, and he therefore might be justified in describing his work as an act of insurrection. But my thinking and writing does not deserve that title. This essay in no way is an insurrection, it has no properly political qualities. This writing, rather, is personal and primarily in response to my surroundings. While my surroundings may be politically constituted, my writing is not inherently political, and is therefore not an intellectual insurrection. But is this what Foucault really wanted from his work? Did he really think that he was political through and through? And that his writing was a pure attempt at the insurrection of knowledge? I don’t think this is what Foucault wanted. In fact, I think he may have been pursuing the opposite, that is to say, he was after the depoliticization of certain experiences
Fortunately, I think I have some evidence that what Foucault was really after was the depoliticization of certain experiences. As I said, certain experiences, like sexuality, work, health, and sense of body, are determined by political forces. To find a way to experience sexuality or work beyond the dominant political/ideological narratives would be to escape the way those political effects on your perception. Foucault hints at this when he says, “For centuries we have been convinced that between our ethics, our personal ethics, our everyday life, and the great political and social and economic structures, there were analytical relations, and that we couldn’t change anything, for instance, in our sex life or our family life, without ruining our economy, our democracy, and so on. I think we have to get rid of this idea of an analytical or necessary link between ethics and other social or economic or political institutions” (Foucault Reader, 350). Foucault was deeply concerned with breaking new experiential ground, finding limit-experiences, thoughts and feelings at the frontiers of our mind. This is why he claims that “The critical ontology of ourselves has to be considered not, certainly, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating; it has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them” (What is Enlightenment?, 118, in The Politics Of Truth). Inherent in this explorative attitude is a attempt to step beyond the politically determined nature of our deepest thoughts and experiences. It logically implies the depoliticization of experience.
This idea of finding experiences beyond the sway of the political realm can also be seen elsewhere in Foucault’s work. In this quotation he puts the notion of depoliticization of the self even more strongly. He claims that for the ancient Greeks, ethics “was not related to any social–or at least to any legal–institutional system. For instance, the laws against sexual misbehavior were very few and not very compelling. The... thing is that what they were worried about, their theme, was to constitute a kind of ethics which was an aesthetics of existence.... Recent liberation movements suffer from the fact that they cannot find any principle on which to base the elaboration of a new ethics. They need an ethics, but they cannot find any other ethics than an ethics founded on so-called scientific knowledge of what the self is, what desire is, what the unconscious is, and so on” (Foucault Reader, 343). Foucault here claims that modern ethics, ‘liberation movements’, are bound to forms of knowledge that are either state-sanctioned, or that fall within the state-sanctioned scientific framework. The task for Foucault and other liberation movements, therefore, is to create an ethical space that exists beyond state-sanctioned discourses. In other words, Foucault hopes to find a space beyond political discourses, and thus the depoliticization of certain experiences.
I believe that this is what is at the core of Foucault’s aesthetics of existence. Well, perhaps I’m speaking too quickly. I no doubt am. I haven’t read The Courage Of Truth and don’t really know what Foucault thought the political stakes were for the aesthetics of existence. But my hunch is that he didn’t see it as having huge public political consequences. I agree with Lilla that Foucault was withdrawing into the personal world. And I agree with Zizek that Foucault’s political failure in Iran meant that he “withdrew to the topic of the care of the self, of the aesthetics of existence.” This, however, isn’t necessarily a problem. It is merely one form that the aesthetic existence can take. It can be a personal project. It does not have to be inherently political. Let me wrap up on this section on that point.
11. The Aesthetic Existence And The Struggle against Individual Corruption of Consciousness: Concluding IV.3
Foucault’s aesthetics of existence, therefore, is best thought of as a personal project, and not as a political act or something called ‘intellectual insurrection’. I find it important to clarify this so that we don’t mistake the character of Foucault’s oeuvre. There is such a sharp change in The History Of Sexuality from Volume I, The Will To Knowledge, to volume II, The Use Of Pleasure. I remember when I first read Volume II I could hardly believe it. My first reaction was to connect Foucault’s politically oriented texts to his final writings. The question I had for myself was, ‘If the Foucault of 1975 was talking about how his work was an act of insurrection against a discursive regime etc., should I apply that metaphorical stance to his late work? Should I think of the aesthetics of existence in the language of insurrection?’ A strange question indeed. And one I’ve tried to think about.
Foucault does briefly discuss the relationship between the care of the self, self-government, and the government of others. For the ancient Greeks “it is this relationship with the self that modulates and regulates the use the prince makes of the power he exercises over others (The Use Of Pleasure, 173). But right now I am inclined to say that Foucault’s aesthetics of existence was a more personal project. References to the political implications of the aesthetics of existence are sparse and I don’t recall feeling persuaded by them. It doesn’t seem like it is the main thrust in The Use Of Pleasure. It does feel like a more personal book. Thus my claim that Foucault’s aesthetics existence is in reality an apolitical practice.
Collingwood also thinks the aesthetic process can be highly personal. He explains how an artist’s existence is an ongoing struggle against the corruption of consciousness. “Corruption of consciousness,” he claims, “is not a recondite sin or a remote calamity which overcomes only an unfortunate or accursed few; it is a constant experience in the life of every artist, and his life is a constant and, on the whole, a successful warfare against it. But this warfare always involves a very present possibility of defeat; and then a certain corruption becomes inveterate” (284, my emphasis). I use this quotation for several reasons. Obviously I use it because Collingwood defines the aesthetic process as an individual process by which a person uses consciousness to its proper end of seeking self-knowledge, successfully avoiding a form of self-deception, which he describes as the corruption of consciousness. But I also use it because of Collingwood’s use of militaristic metaphors. He speaks in the language of warfare and defeat, as if though there was a battle or a war that was taking place in the mind of an individual.
Perhaps it is okay to use militaristic metaphors. It seems like it communicates the point. Because it does feel like a struggle to overcome your own thoughts, to tame your own habits. Interesting to speak in metaphors like that. To compare things to war. But because my main purpose is to apprehend precisely the way that the aesthetic existence is political, I have to say that what Foucault is talking about is not political. And Collingwood says some similar things. Foucault’s aesthetics of existence is a personal endeavor, it is akin to Collingwood’s notion of the artist working to overcome his own corruption of consciousness. Foucault’s aesthetics of existence is a personal struggle that ultimately seeks the depoliticization of experience, the discovery of thoughts and feelings beyond the dominant discourses of the state apparatus.
This is the line I wanted to draw in this section. I wanted to explain how Foucault’s aesthetics of existence is not a political project and is not to be thought of one despite his earlier political writing. The aesthetic existence should not be described as an insurrection of any kind. It is something a person does for themselves. And often it is in no way political. In the final part of this project, however, I do want to understand what is political in the aesthetic existence. How could it possibly be a political project. Because I believe there are ways. But those answers are not to be found in Foucault and his aesthetics of existence. Onward to Part IV.4.

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